Whose right is it anyway?

A quick and probably unpopular post prompted by my train journey home yesterday.

It is 2013. We know, beyond doubt, that cigarettes are bad for us. We know that they cause cancer and ultimately, kill you. We know that the effects of smoking cost the NHS millions every year. And we know the effects of passive smoking.

Yet, whenever proposed government changes intended to de-glamourise smoking make the headlines, the “it’s my choice” brigade come out in force. People seem to defend their right to smoke with more vehemence than any other “right” our nation allows us. Where do my rights come into this?

Surely it is my right to be able to walk down the street without someone else’s smoke hitting me in the face every few paces?

Surely it is my right to waddle, heavily pregnant, into the women’s unit at the hospital without having to fight my way through hoards of smoking patients? And yes, these included many pregnant women. The Neo-Natal Unit at Heartlands has a tagging system to ensure no babies from the ward go missing, a tagging system which is often set off by people who accidentally help themselves, not to a baby, but to some other element of hospital property – perhaps bedding. This triggers a 10 minute lock-down while security check that every baby is safely in her cot or incubator. During one lock-down I was treated to a heavily pregnant woman in her pyjamas repeatedly swearing because she desperately needed a ciggy right now. As, apparently, did her mother.

And surely it is my right to sit on a train for an hour without gagging at the stench of stale smoke on the clothes of the otherwise immaculate businessman wedged in beside me? I spent most of my journey home last night trying to quash the nausea by sucking on breath mints, and even as I descended the escalator at International I could smell the lingering odour on my clothes. It was disgusting.

I’m sure smokers will want to weigh in here, and I have to know – why are your rights so much more important than mine? We are seen to have a basic human right to fresh water – why not to fresh air? Why are my choices less valid than yours?



12 thoughts on “Whose right is it anyway?

  1. I was a smoker for a decade until I gave up three years ago in favourite of the smoke-free ecigarette. Still, it’s important to mention because although this isn’t a current issue I face, it is one I have experience of from the other side.

    If you wish to make an argument against passive smoking, no one can complain about that. As a smoker, I didn’t smoke in public areas long before the smoking ban happened. We do indeed know the dangers of passive smoking, and it was a major influence on my reasons for quitting as I didn’t want to endanger people I socialised with because of my bad habit. I’m sorry for your experiences at the Neo-Natal unit, because that isn’t right. In my city hospital, the smoking section has now been moved to far from the main entrance doors, I presume for this exact reason.

    I wasn’t hugely keen on your tone throughout the first few paragraphs, but I can see your point is valid. My issue comes with the final paragraph, in which you basically take issue with an odour you dislike.

    People do things that other people don’t like. Sometimes, that has health implications. A friend of mine has vicious migraines triggered by floral scents, which means anyone with a particularly strong perfume will trigger her. I have tinnitis which is worsened by beeping noises such as the ones from handheld games; I will hear the beeps for hours afterwards, even when trying to sleep. I have no particular inclination to sit next to someone who has extremely poor personal hygiene, or a lemon scent, or someone who is talking loudly to the point where it is hurting my damaged eardrums. I don’t like being near people who have been drinking heavily. All of these, and your own experience on your commute, are unfortunate kinks of modern life that, to fix, would need to seriously damage everyone’s civil liberties.

    You seem to have mixed what is just a basic gripe in with your overall prejudice against smokers, as if sitting next to an odour you disliked is the same as the dangers of passive smoking. There’s also a touch of sanctimonious about the way you judge pregnant women who smoke. Is that a good idea? No. Should they be being more careful? Yes! Do I condone it? No. But it is their right to make their own decisions. When those decisions infringe on yours, all you realistically have a “right” to do is move away, ask that they move away, or tell someone official to make them move away due to your concerns. If you choose not to do those things, they can continue to choose to make their decisions with the fairly reasonable assumption that no one else has an issue with what they are doing.

    Fresh water is more important than fresh air because fresh water is a basic human need. Fresh air is not. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t live in smog-filled cities and all have carbon monoxide levels that are unacceptable to general health. You debase your comments against legitimate issues like passive smoking with statements like these.

    Also, smokers put more money in to the public purse than they take out via the NHS for smoking-related illnesses. Many of the NHS money spent on smoking is actually on the quit campaigns and smoking clinics rather than treatment. That is not a particularly justifiable stick to try and beat smokers with.

    I also highly object to the idea that the right to smoke is the most defended. Smokers are an increasingly ignored section of society who are penalised in a variety of different ways, and they’re a dwindling group. As a smoker I certainly considered my other rights more important than my right to smoke. People are simply defending something that they are seeing constantly threatened.

    You mentioned discussion, so that’s what I’ve tried to provide.

  2. Thanks Antonia – I was hoping a smoker would offer their point of view. 🙂

    I do have a lot of friends who smoke, but they tend to be considerate smokers – aware of the non-smokers around them, and somehow (perhaps not heavy enough smokers?) they avoid that stale smoke smell that really turns my stomach. They would never smoke around a pregnant woman or children – I’m certain of that.

    I absolutely, however, judge those who chose to smoke whilst pregnant. We are all educated, especially when pregnant, on the dangers of smoking to our unborn baby. In my opinion, if you choose to have a child, you are choosing to dedicate yourself to making their lives as healthy and happy as possible. I may be stepping on a lot of toes here, but I genuinely believe that it should be made illegal for pregnant women to smoke. When your actions impinge on those of another human being, I don’t think choice should come into it.

    I can see why you say that some of my points – in the main part those that relate to my personal feelings and tastes on the matter – might debase my overall argument. Still, I don’t see why my dislike for the smell of smoking should be brushed aside as irrelevant when the only real reason anyone has for choosing to smoke in the first place is because they like it. It may be addictive to some, but there is more help available than ever to those who genuinely wish to stop. The fact that some of my arguments relate to the scientifically proven detrimental effects of smoking adds weight to what should be a valid argument anyway. Smoking is in no way good for you. It is not like wine, or good fats, proven to be good for the body in the right quantities. The assertion that nicotine calms one down, whilst true, is far more effective in patch or gum form, as the body’s reaction to CO2 has the opposite effect. There are no health benefits to smoking – a taste for cigarettes is the only reason people choose to smoke.

    As to sounding sanctimonious, as a non-smoker this is just the sort of blog post I would have avoided writing in the past for fear of sounding just that. Indeed, as a non-smoker I feel almost afraid of expressing my feelings about smoking simply because to do so might be considered prejudiced. But lately I have begun to wonder why it should be that my feelings on something proven to have negative effects on the population’s health should be considered of lesser value simply because they questions someone’s choice. I still cannot see why my choice to voice my opinion should be any less valid. We defend someone’s right to make a decision that endangers their health and those around them, but condemn those who question that decision? Stinks of inequality to me.

    • I should probably also mention in defence of Heartlands hospital, the designated smoking area is opposite the entrance to the women’s unit, across a pedestrian crossing, with a lovely little shelter to protect the smokers from the elements. Yet still they insist on clustering around the hospital entrance and forcing me to walk through a cloud of their smoke. They show absolutely no consideration for me, despite hospital money having shown consideration for them. Also seems unfair.

      • I guess I’m halfway between the two sides as an ecigarette user 🙂 The NHS considers me an ex-smoker/non-smoker despite my ecigarette use, as they are far less harmless (no tar, carbon monoxide etc).

        At heart, I’m a massive civil libertarian, so I struggle hugely with the idea of making smoking while pregnant illegal. It brings up a lot of issues of when a child is a person with their own rights and not somehow part of the woman, issues which spread across to all kinds of topics like abortion limits. But I see your point; they are, most likely, harming another person. I just don’t know if actually making something like that law is the best use of the system. It might be better to pass incentives for not smoking rather than penalising smoking; giving people a choice is a key issue.

        Absolutely, people do smoke because they like the taste. But people do a lot of other bad things because they like the taste. I don’t drink alcohol, but many do, even though we all know the dangers of alcohol consumption. I almost got the implication that people were making a choice that you found difficult to comprehend, and that that was even *worse* because they only smoke because they like it. There’s nothing wrong with people doing things just because they like it. I find the desire to lose the inability to think straight or drive a car just because of a beverage pretty bizarre, but I’m not going to suggest my rights are being infringed if I have to deal with a drunk person or the stomach-wrenching smell of alcohol on breath. Other people enjoy it; I don’t agree, but… I see that they are entitled to do it.

        That said, many people smoke for reasons far more complex than you imply. I certainly went through a phase where I smoked as a defence mechanism, kind of an “eff you” to everyone who told me I shouldn’t. I also spent a substantial part of my smoking life almost welcoming the health risks, because I have severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and it manifested asuicide ideation, a quieter way to take my own life somehow. This is not uncommon; some people like the idea of harming themselves, shortening their life span, via a fairly passive method like smoking. It’s not always as simple as “this tastes nice and I want it”. Sometimes the reasons are far more destructive, difficult or even rooted in nostalgia (one friend of mine smokes two cigarettes a week because it reminds her of her grandfather) or other complex emotions. It says something about a person when they willingly take such a huge risk as smoking an analogue cigarette, at their willingness to risk the odds. Exploring the reasons behind these choices — and *definitely* the reasons women smoke while pregnant — might be more conducive than outright penalisation and condemnation.

        In trying to tell people how to conduct their lives because of your personal dislike, you do risk sounding sanctimonious, BUT: that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it. Any decision not to do so is yours alone. However, if you wish to question, you have to accept the fact that you will be questioned for wanting to ask the question. I have never known people being condemned for suggesting others shouldn’t smoke (in fact, quite the opposite) though I accept you may have, but unless someone is tying your hands and taping your mouth, you still have a right to reply.

      • Oh, and I feel the issue of the hospital is just straight up horrible people rather than an outright smoking issue. There’s no excuse for that. But for every smoker like them, there’s someone who bites down their cravings until they find somewhere suitable to smoke.

        • Thank you for such well-reasoned and politely put replies, Antonia – I’m really pleased you were able to give me an alternate opinion. Also, I feel like I’ve engaged in an adult conversation today – something I rarely get the chance of with the babies to look after! 🙂

          I recognise that issues surrounding smoking are much more complex than I would like to admit – and as I’ve mentioned below, I also confess that my reasons for feeling so strongly and reacting so emotionally might have been prompted by events in my personal life. Tolerance is always a valuable lesson, and one I’ll try to embrace.

  3. Tolerance is the answer. I was a smoker but gave up 18 years ago. I probably inflicted passive smoke on people around me, it was selfish. I wish I knew back then what I know now.
    I never smoked during pregnancy: my smoking days were after my first two children were born and before the last one. I agree that if you choose to have a baby, it is your duty as a mother not to inflict your habit on that of your unborn child. That was my choice. What other mothers do is their choice. If it was a family member or someone I loved and cared about, I’d give them my opinion on not smoking during pregnancy. I cannot worry about everyone else’s choices, even if I feel they are bad choices.
    I hate the smell of stale smoke, I move away from anyone who smells of it, if possible and I’d make any excuse to not breath it in.
    After having worked for 8 years as a psychotherapist in a cancer hospice, I have seen first hand the damage that smoking does. Families are distraught. Lung cancer is the number one killer. However, we cannot ever police anyone else, we can only ever police ourselves.
    It’s so frustrating, that as I age, and after menopause, my vocal filter button is going slightly wonky, and I’m inclined to be less tolerant than I would have normally been.
    The only thing that I can try to do is be tolerant. Or move to the Outer Hebrides – and knowing my luck, they’d still be some bugger there who thinks that his head is a chimney!

  4. I think you’re right Aunty K – tolerance should be the answer. Unfortunately, I find that my ability to tolerate is directly linked to how much sleep I have had, so just now it’s pretty darned low!

    And I am still struggling to understand why I should be forced to tolerate a smokers’ choice to smoke, rather than smokers being forced to tolerate my choice to live in a smoke-/stale smoke-free environment. I think perhaps since getting pregnant I have become a lot more protective of myself and my surroundings.

    My Father-in-Law is a smoker and still has not held his grandsons, partly because he is aware of just how much he smells of stale smoke (I can detect when he has arrived through a closed nursery door) and partly because the boys do cry when he gets too close to them. So perhaps I am taking things a little more personally these days too…

    • Your grandfather might have other issues around holding tiny babies. The boys seem to sense it. He really is perhaps (excuse the pun) using a smoke screen? It’s hard to not take it personally, some people are just a lot better with children than others.
      Don’t tolerate smokers…get away from them as much as you can, that’s all we can do, as they’re never going to disappear entirely. Being a mother brings all the feelings of wanting to protect straight to the fore.
      It’s nice to see you have some time to write now about other things as well as the boys. It’s nice to maintain some equilibrium.
      Lots of love and hugs to you all xxx

  5. I thought this was a very good post! And one close to home, since I myself have a four month old daughter and had to carefully avoid second hand smoke while pregnant. I, however, live in a city (Portland, Oregon) where smoking in restaurants, pubs, trains, busses, and even bus stops is illegal. The fact is that smoking is dangerous to one’s health and second hand smoke is dangerous (in fact, more dangerous) to other people’s health. And what many people are unaware of is the fact that if you are smelling stale cigarette smoke, then those toxins are still lingering. Just because the smoke is not present, doesn’t mean the danger has passed! So smelling stale smoke odor is not just an inconvenience to you, it in itself is a potential health hazard! If my home city can put bans on smoking in certain public spaces, then there is hope for the rest of the world, too.

    • Corey – that’s really interesting! It was mentioned to me that stale smoke could be potentially harmful to the boys when we first brought them home from hospital. In fact we requested one health visitor stop visiting the house because she smelled so strongly of stale smoke, our house would smell for several hours after she left, which we felt sure could not be good for babies! But it is not a widely advertised fact, so not a point I felt confident arguing.

      We too have a ban on smoking in enclosed public places: pubs, bars, restaurants, shopping centres, public transport, railway stations, and bus stops. But all this generally does is to push smokers out onto the street, usually in a cluster around the entrance of public places, or, indeed, blocking the pavement outside town centre pubs, especially on a Saturday afternoon.

      And I get so angry when, whilst walking down the street minding my own business, I get hit full in the face by smoke blown by the person walking in front of me – they even tip their heads to the side before exhaling to avoid getting smoke in their own faces! Drives me mad!

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