Saturday, 17 August 2013

Do Non-Smokers Really Play The World’s Smallest Violin?

A comment on the blog last night left me thinking. Not all of them do but this was a good comment and began with a quote from my previous post.
"And I’m tired of being forced to breathe in second-hand smoke,’ I said"

It appears you're happy to drive past, and close, to hundreds of cars pumping out carcinogenic fumes, however, the smell of a single burning leaf is enough to near kill you!

*plays worlds tiniest violin*

It’s a good reply but doesn’t apply to me or to what I’d written. The comment presupposed a few things about me that aren’t actually true. For example, as a small town cyclist, I don’t come into contact with hundreds of cars. Mainly out of cowardice, I generally avoid traffic by taking empty residential streets, paths through parkland, a road through a largely quiet industrial estate, and I very rarely spend any time sitting in traffic smelling engine fumes. The second mistake is to assume that my objection to cigarettes is based on their perceived harm. It’s not. I object to having smoke blown in my face because I find that the fetid hot breath of wizened nicotine addicts sickens me to my stomach. My argument would be the same if I was forced to smell raw effluent or the rotting carcass of a feral dog left tied to the bike stands.

Despite my primary objections to the comment, at the heart of the argument there was still a good point that needed exploring. Why should cyclists have a problem with smokers given the pollution they’re exposed to in the average cycle journey?

That question intrigued me, though I knew immediately that my reply would take me into morally dark waters. Having an opinion about smoking is like holding a position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no position from which you won’t annoy somebody and possibly need a deep bunker.

Yet I’ve never seen myself as a real anti-smoker. I don’t agree with pressure groups that turn these issues into territorial disputes so badge wearers can shake their fists at the rival camp. I like to think I’d defend people’s right to do whatever they want with their bodies, their lives, and their actions. My only restriction is that those choices can’t intrude on the rights of others to do what they want with their bodies, lives and actions.

Naturally, this tolerant approach leads me into some problematic areas, such as my belief that it’s wrong to outlaw any form of speech. Censorship of thoughts, however repellent, merely pushes people with extremist sentiments into the shadows where they eventually do more harm. Let the hate-filled bigots stand in the open where they can be addressed through rational argument, humiliated through ridicule, and revealed for the true louses these people are. Political Correctness, though noble in its aim, merely turns bigots into quiet hypocrites. Silencing people doesn’t make them change their attitudes but it can harden a prejudice into hatred.

I’m not denying that this liberal attitude doesn’t sometimes leave me gritting my teeth when I find myself defending the rights of people I find deeply repellent. Yet it also allows me to retain a defence for satire. Freedom of expression means that I also reserve the right to argue that the choices people make are dumb and where appropriate, mock them savagely for that, as I too can be mocked for the dumb choices I make and opinions I express.

So, although I’m not a smoker, I wouldn’t ban tobacco, as I wouldn’t ban alcohol or even drugs (again, this slides into difficult areas but I’d like to think that arguments against those perils outweigh any argument in their favour). It comes down to a matter of personal choice provided the context allows those individual choices to be made whilst not impacting on the identical rights of others.

Smokers rightly defend their activity by saying they have made a choice as individuals and the rest of us have no right to curtail their activities. And they are absolutely right. Yet the problem that smokers repeatedly fail to acknowledge is that this individual freedom/personal choice argument also works the other way around.

Again, my own objection towards smoking has nothing to do with the harm it might cause. If smoking were good for you, my argument would be exactly the same and it’s this: I have made a choice not to smell something I find repellent. Smokers believe that they’re victimised because they smoke. That’s wrong. They are only victimised when they take away other people’s right to choose and force them to share the consequences of their personal choice. It’s this that lies at the heart of the great Steve Martin joke that has one person ask ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ and the other reply ‘No but do you mind if I fart?’

Would smokers complain if a large section of the public, gifted with highly pungent arseholes, spent large portions of their day stinking out the entrances to every mainline station, bus stop, or, in the case of my post yesterday, supermarket? What about people who might enjoy standing in a bus queue making a high pitched whining noise? What about people who might have a passion for hosepipes or water guns? What if every time we walked through town we were suddenly doused with harmless water? What if it was tear gas? What if it was raw sewage?

My examples are ridiculous but no more ridiculous, to my mind, than people burning dried leaves and blowing the smoke into another person’s face. And this brings me to the difference between cyclists exposed to smokers and cyclists exposed to pollution: there is no difference except you don’t choose to be a cyclist so you can expose yourself to car emissions in the same way that you don’t choose to be a non-smoker in order to expose yourself to smoke. We can, however, we can do something about the former in the short term, whilst working to solve the problem of the latter.

And we definitely have the right to do something. It’s true that I could endure them like I’ve endured them for years. Perhaps I’m even making a big thing out of a very petty quibble. But don’t I have as much right to choose to avoid the stench of cigarettes as those people have the right to feed their craving? I’m not saying that I’m any better or worse than they are. I’m just saying that I’m different and I would expect others to respect my choice.

The world’s smallest violin? It’s only small if you perceive it as small.


  1. Fair play to you for putting together a reasoned & balanced reply to my intial response at your last posting.

  2. No, thank you for prodding me into thought. I think smokers and non-smokers needn't be at loggerheads. There's room in the world for all of us, just not always in the same space. ;)

  3. There is a similar argument about bikes and cars :)

  4. As well as Christians and Muslims, Jews and Palestinians, and just about every opposition you could name. The problem is that debates are usually driven by the zealots and zealots never accept that an alternate point of view holds any merit. And if you think like that, the only way you can win is by the annihilation of one by the other. No wonder the world's in such a mess.

    Personally, I favour any scheme that gets cyclists out of traffic and into their/our own lanes. On my day in London the other week, as a cyclist I was shocked to see people riding those damn Boris bikes. Looked like a huge number of accidents waiting to happen. That said: the transport situation in this country is insane. Bus and train prices are so high it doesn't make sense taking public transport.

  5. I have to say, in my humble opinion the language you use to describe smoke and smokers is that of an anti-smoker...

    I was disappointed when reading the 'Tesco' post to find that to be so... I doubt very much if anybody ever blows smoke into your face for instance... I'm 53, I used to work in pubs and don't remember anybody ever blowing smoke in my face - oh apart from Sandy in the saloon bar of The Links in Ashford about 1978 who smoked a pipe and blew great big clouds of it across the bar into the serving area...

    It is frightening how smokers have been 'denormalised' over the years in a programme which is now being extended to those who enjoy alcohol, salt, fizzy drinks, etc. They certainly have been victimised.... They have been banned from every single bar, restaurant and club in the country (and many other countries) with no right to open their own smoking establishment...

    And now smokers are to be banned from smoking in their cars, and many open air areas despite there being no evidence whatsoever that second hand smoke presents a danger... Don't like the smell...? Well, perhaps I don't like the smell of your deodorant or certain perfumes (I don't) - should we ban those things too?

    By the way, I am a never-smoker....

  6. Well, okay, perhaps you do detect an anti-smoking sympathy in my language, though I’d say what you notice is really an anti-arsehole agenda. I’ve had smoke blown in my face countless times, though perhaps what you and I consider ‘blown in my face’ to be quite different. Countless times I’ve walked past a smoker who turned their head and blew smoke into my face. Plenty of times I’ve stood next to smokers who blew smoke my way simply because they didn’t want to blow it in the direction of their friends. Is it in my face or in my direction? I concede that point but I think the argument is about semantics.

    The fact you worked in pubs and it never bothered means you’re probably indifferent to smoke and that is part of the point I was making. You can make a choice to be in that environment or not. I choose not to be and I don’t see why I should be forced otherwise to inhale something that makes me feel unwell.

    Perhaps smokers are victimised by certain anti-smoking lobby groups but not, I think, by the majority of people. I think that most of us don’t care what other people do. Most of us are not so small minded to dictate (though criticism is always fair) how other people live their lives. I doubt if most people would demand that smokers stop smoking in their own cars, in their own pubs and clubs, or even outside in public. In the same way, I would never stop smokers receiving care on the NHS or unfairly tax them out of their habit. I don’t deny that there’s a health fascism at work.

    ‘Denormalized’ is a tricky word because it would assume that smoking is the ‘norm’. It isn’t. A quick search tells me that only 22% of people in the world smoke. It’s a choice that a minority make so it’s already denormalized in that sense. You say that they have been victimized because they’ve been banned from every single bar, restaurant, and club, but surely that’s only because smokers change the atmosphere in those places for everybody. I don’t have any investment in this argument because I rarely ever go to a bar, restaurant or club but, purely from an academic point of view, isn’t it the same argument as somebody wanting to play their trombone during a church service? Surely the will of the majority should prevail?

    Regarding alcohol, salt, fizzy drinks: we have the choice to drink and eat those things. But I don’t see what’s wrong with doing something based on the advice of scientists. When we were talked about fracking, you were very quick to quote a report in its defence. I read the report and it definitely changed my opinion. Yet now you casually offer the fact that there’s no evidence that secondhand smoke is a danger when the overwhelming evidence suggests the opposite.

    I’m open to counter arguments but I don’t see a huge consensus of scientific evidence suggesting that breathing cigarette smoke is benign. That said, you’ll notice that I’ve never based my arguments on the harmful effects of cigarettes. I’m exposed to so little of it that I accept that it’s probably less of a danger than riding my bike or standing next to a bus emitting carbon monoxide and worse. My argument has always been about choice.

    As to not liking the smell of perfume or deodorant, well that is true, though you don’t tend to find designated areas for perfume wearers where I’m forced to go and lock my bike, which was really the entire extent of my objection to smoking. Believe me: if this was about my being forced to go and leave my bike in the ground floor perfume section in Boots, my argument would be the same. In fact, given a choice, I’d probably prefer to endure the smell of nicotine than Channel No 5 and its variants.

  7. […] gives ammunition to people who want to dismiss every aspect of PC culture. Of course, I’ve argued before that PC culture is self-defeating and it is for precisely the kind of problems associated with […]

  8. Personally i don't mind cigarette smoke as long as it's not so thick that i have to inhale a real lungful (it then triggers an asthma attack). But i have almost no sense of smell.

    Pipe tobacco usually comes with a description of the "room note" - how it will smell to other people. This is because cigarettes are for the lesser man and pipes for the gentry & elite.