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There is something in the air

...says Marjorie Nicholson, and it smells more unpleasant than stale tobacco smoke

In recent months we have witnessed a new crusade against smokers in the workplace and women who smoke, especially if pregnant. The spitefulness evident in some anti-smoker arguments illustrates all too well the changes taking place in Blairite Britain.

In the workplace, a survey conducted by a well-known pharmaceutical company 'revealed' that a substantial proportion of non-smokers thought that smoking colleagues should have their wages docked for time spent on smoking breaks. Not content with expelling smokers from the building (as is the case in many workplaces), some people now wish to reduce their income even if they are fulfilling the terms of their contract during the time spent at their workstations. The logical conclusion of this argument is not to employ anybody who smokes. And this is not scaremongering; the Professional Association of Teachers recently voted in favour of just such a motion at their annual conference.

Even more insidious are the attacks on women who smoke, especially if pregnant. Any woman who has gone through pregnancy will be familiar with the lists of dos and don'ts thrust into her hands the minute she walks into the antenatal clinic. A woman who is pregnant is a non-person, relegated to little more than a walking incubator with the 'rights of the unborn child' elevated above any that she might have as a human being. The logical conclusion to the arguments of those who rant against women smoking in pregnancy (or doing anything else they are advised not to do) is to keep all pregnant women under constant surveillance and punish them for any lapses in behaviour. Indeed, in America pregnant women have been imprisoned for drinking alcohol!

The anti-smoking strategy of control consists of two elements. First, identify the target group and undermine its confidence. Second, evoke indignation, fear or jealousy among those who are not in the target group. The ultimate objective is to make smokers feel as wretched as possible, and undermine their confidence and willingness to assert their right to decide for themselves whether they smoke or not. This strategy depends on maintaining the division between those who smoke and those who do not, while legitimising the persecution of smokers.

To see the success of the strategy, look at the issue of smoking in the workplace, and in particular at the behaviour of trade unions. When Welwyn and Hatfield council announced their intention to remove all provision for smokers by the year 2000, to prohibit any employee from smoking even if working outside council buildings, and to dismiss anybody who failed to comply, council officials declared that this policy had been adopted with the support of the trade union. Thus, an organisation whose raison d'être is to protect the jobs of its members is supporting a policy which could result in them losing their jobs simply for pursuing a lifestyle choice.

Where cases have come to light of smokers alleging that they have been denied access to medical treatment because they are smokers, the response of those organisations supposedly campaigning for patients' rights has been deafening silence. It was a brave Church of Scotland which defended the right of women to smoke, accepting that for the less well off it was one of the few pleasures they could afford and one that helped alleviate some of the tension of their circumstances.

Choosing how you live your life, including the choice to engage in activities which others might disapprove of or find distasteful, is an expression of our individuality and our means of defining what and who we are. It is the expression of freedom and free will.

The attack on smokers is just one manifestation of the general tendency of government to seek to exert control over the population. Freedom of action implies freedom of thought, neither of which are particularly helpful to government, and especially to a government which declares that it has a 'vision' of what society should really be like.

Mr Blair's vision is of a new and confident Britain. However, if this policy of divide and rule is to be applied against others as systematically as it has been against smokers the outcome is more likely to be a Britain whose people become tired of the perpetual bombardment of things they are called upon to hate or be fearful of, confused over how to behave towards one another, and devoid of the confidence to express any opposition. This is why smokers' rights matter.

Marjorie Nicholson is director of FOREST, the smokers' rights campaign

Reproduced from LM issue 115, November 1998

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