Tuesday 28 February 2012

Puff, Pass, Puff Puff, Pass.

Banished quite literally into the cold, the twenty-first century is a miserable time to be a public smoker. Forlorn and freezing, hunched over and gathered together outside the pub, you can almost feel the resentment as more enlightened folk push through the crowd of what Joe Moran has called ‘puffing pariahs’. When friends excuse themselves for a crafty fag, it is almost with a hint of embarrassment; it’s hard to pretend you’re just popping to the loo when you wearily pull your jacket on for the fifth time that night. “It’s apartheid!” some assert. “Bloody nanny state” moan others. What do-gooder monster can’t feel a slight tinge of sympathy when a smoker sighs in defeat “All we want, at the least, is our own room where we can smoke. Is that too much to ask?”

Yes. “GET OUTSIDE” screams the law.

Back in November, the British Medical Association called for the smoking ban to be extended to cars, after calculating that levels of toxins in a car can be up to 23 times higher than in a smoky bar. Consequently the debate raged across the blogosphere, parliament and smoking shelters everywhere. While there doesn’t seem to have been any permanent conclusions yet, though this month the Welsh government launched a campaign to encourage people to stop smoking in cars when children are travelling, I don’t imagine that we have heard the end of it.

In a general sense it fits quite snugly as the next step in a longer twentieth-century story of the relationship between the central state and medical professions. Without getting too deeply into a large and complicated historiography, the rise of the biological sciences in the second half of the 19th century gave an ability and language to define and quantify problems of the body, and their relation to society, and so make it possible to be fixed. As a ‘new’ domain of government that has retrospectively been termed ‘the social’, a range of legislative actions from the state proliferated from the early 1900s and targeted the health of the nation and particularly the working classes (free school meals and school nurses, public health ordinances, and, of course, universal health care). But what are the limits of this relationship between medical discourse and state legislation? A utilitarianist perspective would accept a ban in public spaces. But in private spaces like the car? Is state health legislation optional, prescriptive, involuntary, or something altogether more sinister?

I’ve never really taken to smoking. I splutter, go white, and rasp for days after. Yet I don’t hate smokers. Nor do I feel it necessary to smirk and tut, “Nah, filthy habit mate” whenever someone asks me for a light. I’m fairly certain that they know it’s not the cleanest or most edifying of pleasures. But what half decent sinful activity is? I’m a bit of a drinker. And I don’t mind the odd kebab. I’ve even been known to not tie my laces, and I’d probably go ski-ing if my knees held up to it. A combination of these activities would lead to a jet-propelled and smelly accident waiting to happen. Yet no-one is going to ban alcohol and kebabs… or are they?

I can already imagine future crafty bards lamenting…

“First they came for the smokers,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a smoker.
Then they came for the toffee munchers,
and I didn't speak out because I am more fond of savoury snacks.
Then they came for the other drinkers and me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

I can’t help but be reminded of Simon Phoenix in the futuristic utopia of the movie Demolition Man, when all crime has been eradicated, sex is conducted through virtual reality, cheery electronic voices wish citizens to “Be Well”, and so-happy-you-tear-your-hair-out jingles dominate the radio airwaves. Spartan, played by a particularly bulging Wesley Snipes, critiques this society in a peculiarly erudite soundbite:

“You can’t take away people’s rights to be assholes.”