Despite the government’s efforts, people keep smoking – so what does our eagerness to make them suffer say about us?
Andy Burnham has set himself the almighty challenge of halving the number of smokers, from a fifth of the population to a tenth. The hope is that this is like any other target – that with sufficient political will and enough public sector workers given the responsibility to turn the dream into a reality, anything can be accomplished. For the good of the state, a few individuals are going to have to change their ways.
I wonder whether Burnham understands the nature of the challenge he has undertaken for his government on your behalf. The question is a significant one: is the state powerful enough to overcome an individual’s extreme reluctance to part themselves from a substance addictive enough to have people plucking cigarette ends out of gutters in desperation?
How much humiliation, degradation and punishment is it necessary to inflict on a person before stopping smoking, with all the side effects and difficulties faced by those who do, becomes the path of least resistance? Smoking isn’t a habit – it’s a chemical dependency that causes changes in an individual’s brain chemistry that are not easily – or quickly – reversed. It is an addiction with well-known long-term consequences that start with shortness of breath and end in premature, horrible, painful death.
Yet people continue to smoke. They stop when they want to stop, on their own terms, for their own reasons. Or they don’t. They make the choice to continue doing something that is perfectly legal, in the full knowledge of the consequences and risks.
Considering all this, the proposal to ban smoking within a certain distance of doorways seems laughably inadequate. Pressure being brought to bear on individuals not to smoke in their cars or in their own homes goes a little further, but the original mission of protecting bar workers from the potential risks of passive smoking seems like a distant memory. The mission now is to rid smokers of their addiction for its own sake, and for the good of the state. The tools? Humiliation. Fear. Social stigmatisation. Isolation. Shame. Yet, for all their efforts the addiction still wins out.
Perhaps it’s possible for the government to ramp up the pressure to the point where parliament smokers can be literally terrorised into breaking their addiction against their will. So this becomes a question for society: what level of terror are we willing to inflict on smokers in order to force them to stop? Is the goal really worth the oppression that would be required to have any real effect? And if the current level of official hostility against smokers is having no effect, what does it say about us that we support it irrespectively? Is it simply that expressing our displeasure at smokers makes people feel better about themselves?
Still, all this misses the real issue. Smoking remains legal, and raises a staggering £10bn every year for the treasury — more than four times what the NHS spends on smoking-related illnesses. No matter what level of misery the government inflicts on smokers through sanctions, controls, rules and propaganda, nothing compares to the suffering this level of taxation, often on the poorest in society – causes. This level of taxation can only happen because tobacco is addictive and the demand isn’t influenced by price. If the government quadrupled the price in one go that would be a serious shock that would impact demand – but they don’t do it that way.The price creeps up so slowly that individuals don’t notice how much more of their income is being extracted from them, until they realise it’s taking it all, paying for £10bn-worth of public sector employees.
Then the cigarettes themselves cause more pain than any photograph of a corpse on a packet, or an advert on television giving smokers’ children nightmares that their parents could die at any minute ever could. Caught in this triple hell of physical, financial and social suffering, smokers still keep smoking. It’s staggering. It all simply goes away if they stop smoking, yet they do not. So what’s it to be? Do you still want Burnham to push harder? What, exactly, does that say about you?
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