Another day, another attack on smokers

The latest study says smokers are more likely to drink and less likely to eat fruit than non-smokers. Quelle surprise.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Apparently, smokers aren’t just smoking themselves to death. Oh no, according to a new study presented at a tobacco control conference last weekend, the partakers of the evil weed are also a bit too keen on booze, eat terrible food and have a higher-than-average risk of mental illness. It’s as if the threat of dying a miserable, early death from lung cancer wasn’t enough of a stick for anti-tobacco campaigners to beat smokers with.

The study by Cardiff Institute of Society and Health at Cardiff University and the Welsh branch of the anti-smoking lobby group, Ash, surveyed 13,000 smokers, ex-smokers and never-smokers. The researchers found that smokers have unhealthier lifestyles than both non-smokers and those who have given up. For example, 35 per cent of smokers ‘binge drink’, compared with 31 per cent of ex-smokers and 23 per cent of non-smokers. Non-smokers seem to like fruit and veg more, too, with 39 per cent of those surveyed saying they eat five portions per day, compared with 28 per cent of smokers.

And apparently it’s not just physical health that is threatened by smoking. Mental health problems were more common in smokers (14 per cent) than non-smokers (eight per cent).

The Guardian report on the study seemed rather shocked that smokers had generally more ‘unhealthy’ lifestyles than non-smokers. But a modicum of common sense would suggest that smokers are less obsessed about their general health than non-smokers. If they were kept awake at night by concerns with healthy living, they would hardly be smoking in the first place. Nor is the higher rate of mental-health problems particularly surprising, but cause and effect are almost certainly the other way around: people with mental health problems are more likely to self-medicate by smoking (and drinking, for that matter) than the rest of the population. Their problems lead them to smoking, rather than smoking somehow making them mentally ill.

Indeed, there are all sorts of reasons why people might be less concerned about their health than health guardians feel they ought to be. One of these is poverty: if your life is a bit of a grind with limited opportunity, then having another beer or smoking another fag might be a more appealing prospect than an extra few weeks, months or years of old age. As the Marmot Review on health inequalities noted earlier this year: ‘People with a higher socioeconomic position in society have a greater array of life chances and more opportunities to lead a flourishing life. They also have better health. The two are linked: the more favoured people are, socially and economically, the better their health.’

In 2004, in a rare humane comment from a New Labour politician, then health secretary and former chain smoker John Reid fairly tentatively warned against trying to target tobacco restrictions on the poor. ‘All I say is be careful, please be careful that we don’t patronise people. As my mother would put it, people from those lower socioeconomic categories have very few pleasures in life and one of them they regard as smoking.’ Reid rightly expressed concern at the ‘unanimity of the medical and professional activists’ about introducing smoking bans.

In fact, given the endless haranguing smokers receive these days, it’s a wonder that anyone with a wider interest in their own health maintains the habit at all. Not only are we assured that smokers themselves will die young from lung cancer, heart disease and a variety of other ailments, but smokers are guilt-tripped about second-hand and even third-hand smoke affecting other people. Even cot death is routinely blamed on smokers.

Smokers are persona non grata, outcasts huddled in office doorways or crowding together with their outcast friends in front of bars. Every time they light up, they are confronted with such cheery messages as ‘smokers die younger’, ‘smoking clogs the arteries and causes heart attacks and strokes’, ‘smoking causes fatal lung cancer’ and many more, alongside gruesome pictures of diseased lungs or some other tobacco-related, stomach-churning image.

For anti-smoking campaigners, however, this can never be enough. There must always be another shocking association between cigarettes and misery, and there is always another reason why smokers must be targeted for even more ‘health intervention’. Smoking is still a legal activity – just about – but not one that the government or campaigners are going to allow anyone to enjoy in peace.

But here’s the rub: people like to smoke. Nicotine magically possesses the capacity to stimulate and calm us. How many other drugs can actually improve our ability to work (at least in the short term)? It should be for us to decide what kind of trade-off we place on health risks versus pleasure. This autonomy, much reduced by regulations and legislation, is worth defending from those – in government, in the medical profession and in campaign groups like Ash – who believe they know what is good for us and who are prepared to use anything from junk science to blatant moralising to get their way.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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