No room at the inn for smokers

...or even in their own homes, if health officials have their way.

‘Does your organisation know which of the homes visited by its staff are occupied by smokers? If not, it would be advisable to develop such a list.’

This is a taster from new guidelines issued by the Scottish Executive on helping public sector workers avoid exposure to second-hand smoke. The increasingly popular bans on smoking in public places are being followed-up by restrictions on smoking even in private. The Scottish guidelines are just one example of how the attack on smokers, and the invasion of our private lives in the name of health and safety, is going to run and run.

The guidelines suggest that people visited by public servants such as social workers, midwives and carers should be asked to stop smoking during the visit and for one hour beforehand. If that person refuses to stop smoking during the visit, staff would have the right to leave.

‘This is politically correct nonsense, it is political correctness gone mad’, said Mike Rumbles, a Liberal Democrat member of the Scottish Parliament - without a trace of irony from a member of the most politically correct party in Britain.

The Executive was keen to stress that this didn’t imply legal restrictions on people in their own homes. Andy Kerr, the Scottish health minister, said: ‘We have made it clear that residential accommodation is exempt from the legislation. For it to be otherwise would be an infringement of human rights. But we recognise there are instances where people will have to visit a residential property to do their job - and this guidance will help ensure that workers are exposed to passive smoke as little as possible.’ (1)

Whether the guidelines have much practical effect in terms of preventing people from smoking, or causing staff to leave in a huff, is beside the point. Even within our own homes, public sector staff will no longer have to politely ask if we mind not smoking. Instead, smokers will have to ask permission like naughty children, reversing ideas about who controls this private space. The guidelines are another example of how our freedom can be trumped by the state’s disapproval of our unacceptable lifestyles.

Other developments over the past few weeks further illustrate the trend. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) announced guidelines in early December that would allow hospitals to refuse treatment if they considered that a person’s lifestyle would make it ineffective. Thus, if smokers refused to quit, or overweight patients refused to diet, they could be denied care.

Pre-empting the NICE report, primary care trusts in East Suffolk had decreed that obese patients would not be considered for hip and knee replacements until they lost weight. Last weekend, it was widely reported that a man from Lincoln was refused even an appointment with a consultant until he had quit smoking for six months.

Even when a report suggests a more liberal approach, it is based on a shared assumption about risk. So, a report by University College London published this week suggests that a complete ban on smoking in pubs will lead to greater smoking at home - meaning more passive smoking for children. While the authors suggest it would be better to have designated smoking areas in pubs rather than a ban, their study could easily be used to justify greater intervention in the home.

As for the world of work, the World Health Organisation has announced that it will not consider any active smoker for employment (2). That’s possibly fair enough if your job is to persuade people to quit - but if you’re the security guard, or a secretary? Would they refuse to hire an expert on avian flu because he or she liked a fag? Some American companies have already stopped hiring smokers because of the increased cost of health insurance.

The future for smokers looks bleak: refused healthcare and employment, and unable to smoke anywhere but home as long as nobody official is visiting. Smoking is a bad habit that often leads to ill-health, but this relentless exclusion of smokers from everyday life is out of all proportion to the risks involved. It is as if the authorities are saying that not only are you more likely to have a shorter life than the rest of us, but we’re going to make sure it’s not worth living.

Smokers are just the first group to get it in the neck. Similar impositions on the lives of others with inappropriate lifestyles are either under way or coming soon. As Dr Michael Fitzpatrick has argued before on spiked, this is the logical and dangerous trajectory of the therapeutic state (see Straw Nanny, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick).

Still, while there will soon be no room at the inn for those who like to light up, the Scottish guidelines do open up some interesting Christmas present options. Do you have a friend or relative who is sick of that meddling social worker telling them how to live their lives, or that midwife who spends her whole time telling them to breastfeed whether they like it or not?

Buy your put-upon friend 200 Benson and Hedges and tell them to light up as soon as they see that irritating public employee walking up the garden path. With a bit of luck, they’ll bolt like a vampire from a cross.

Read on:

spiked-issue: No smoking

(1) Now Executive warns: no smoking at home, Scotsman, 22 December 2005

(2) World health body bans recruiting smokers, Scotsman, 3 December 2005

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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