Shunning the pariah tag

01:20, Jan 01 2011

Smokers are sick of being demonised and lectured to, writes Vicki Anderson.

I interrupted shaky-handed hollow- eyed pariahs shuffling from storefront to street corner looking for release from the nicotine demons that haunt them in order to catch a whiff of current smoking etiquette.

Observations are plenty on the criminalisation and downward mobility of a once popular and stylish social habit from not-at-all-defensive addicts who ask only that you extend them the same courtesies you would any fellow citizen.

Tobacco is highly addictive. Studies have shown that users of other hard drugs rate tobacco as more addictive than heroin, methadone, amphetamines and barbiturates. Smoking is the single most preventable cause of illness and early death.

It could be said that smoking saved one taxi driver's life. Eyewitnesses report that a driver ducked out of his cab for a cigarette shortly before the 7.1 earthquake of September 4 and only minutes before a wall fell onto his cab. He jumped to safety.

One of the most common New Year resolutions is to quit smoking, for many people a huge struggle, and which they attempt many times. The psychosomatic difficulty involved in stopping smoking, and all the issues surrounding this addiction, are well documented.


Less well documented is how it has become socially acceptable, indeed almost admirable, to demonise smokers.

But rather than preaching, moralising and handwringing at addicts, author Joe Bennett believes the non-smoking general public should be kissing smokers' butts.

"There is no economic argument against smoking. Having already paid a vast amount of tax, smokers die conveniently early, saving the Government vast sums of money.

"In the end it's a matter of personal choice, my health is no-one else's business. I'm not injuring anyone's health. The argument on passive smoking is tenuous at best. The rest-homes of this country are filled with the widows of smokers who survived 40 years of passive smoking."

Bennett decries the way smokers have become demonised. He argues that if alcoholics or those on the methadone programme were treated the same way there would be a public outcry.

"It will shorten my life, no doubt about it, but that is purely my choice. Alcohol kills far more people than smoking does but when someone's having a beer strangers don't see the need to go up and preach 'that's bad for you' at them.

"I've been smoking for 40 years and yes, I have developed a bit of a cough. If I went to the chemist and said 'I'd like to murder my husband, can you prescribe a poison?' And he said 'administer this daily, orally, 40 times a day for four decades and you should see a bit of a cough,' I'd want my money back."

He believes the meddling interfering desire to do good by others is almost always suspicious.

Keeping his home smokefree, Bennett smokes outside with Blue his dog, overlooking his chocolate-box lid Lyttelton garden.

He enjoys the way a cigarette punctuates his day and finds the health warnings on his packet of cigarettes laughable.

"It said 'you are not the only person smoking this cigarette'. I looked around me and there wasn't another living soul as far as the eye can see and I yelled 'yes I f . . . ing am'."

Bennett's father died in his early 50s of smoking-related illness, as have other close family members.

"The way I look at it, I'm not going to be clogging up the health service, costing the Government money in my old age.

"My mother kept perfect health until she hit 80. When she was about 82 or 83, I remember her saying to me 'Don't be 80'. I'm not going to be. But then again, talk to me about it when I'm 79, I might have changed my mind."

Although he once gave up smoking for a week, for a bet, he promptly started again once the bet ended.

"Someone bet me that I couldn't give up for a week so I did. I'm not sure if I could now. There hasn't been a day without a cigarette, or 20 or 35. I don't plan on giving up."

Mary, 45, has smoked since she was 15 and is appalled at the way strangers feel the need to criticise her.

"I feel devalued, discriminated against, depressed, angry and rejected from society because I smoke. I partake of a legal and heavily taxed habit, I work, pay tax, and feel I am a useful member of society, yet I am treated as a pariah. I find it appalling that it is considered acceptable to treat a section of society in such a callous fashion.

"Yes, we know smoking is bad for us. Pity us in private, don't lecture us in public," Mary says.

"I don't need some do-gooder busybody stranger telling me to give up. Hello lady, I find your dress sense offensive but I wouldn't be so rude as to say it to you. Smokers know it will kill us but then you've got to die of something, don't you?"

On a dreary, rainy day outside the New Brighton RSA I found 80-something Arthur Barrett puffing on a cigarette. He fought for New Zealand's freedom in World War II and is angry at the way he is treated by non-smokers.

"We were given smokes in the army. It's how I started. Now I'm addicted, I'm ashamed to say it. It's a filthy habit but it gives me pleasure. It's one of the few things that does. Smoking is legal and I resent being forced to smoke on display outdoors, like some sort of superannuated hooker."

It's hard to watch a war veteran standing in the rain nursing his addiction and not feel ashamed.

With smoking bans in bars introduced around the world, some cities are experiencing a backlash - pro-smoking establishments and pro-smoking organisations such as the British-based FOREST - Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco.

In New York city there are Smokeasies where after midnight the demon tobacco leaf gnaws at the yellow fingers of the rich and powerful. Cigarette smoking is banned in the Big Apple, but many popular clubs put the ashtrays out when the late night crowd arrives. After all, when you're charging more than $US20 (NZ$26) for a cocktail, any fines incurred can be just racked up as business expenses.

One New York-based Kiwi who describes himself as a "metrosexual assistant fashion stylist" says he is a non- smoker but pro-choice.

"If anyone complains we say no-one is holding a gun to your head and telling you to visit a bar where people are smoking, it's your choice. There are plenty of other bars where there is no smoke and your holier-than-thou body will be safe there but watch out for all those exhaust fumes from cars when you're crossing the street, won't you honey."

To smoke, Bennett says, is to swim against the tide. To demonise smokers for their addiction is as wrong as smoking itself. "It is swimming against the current of lifestyle fadism which is loathsome. The house renovations, reality TV bullshit is loathsome. The implication being that once you have secured fortress home your life will be paradisal, which is bollocks. To smoke is to defile that and it needs to be defiled. It's to swim against the tide and only dead fish swim with the tide. It plays that role, it says 'no, I'm not going to conform'.

"I wouldn't advise any kid to take it up but if the Government really cared about my health, they would simply ban tobacco sales.

"Don't tax it for the benefit of everyone, don't exploit it and at the same time demonise the payer of the taxes. If it's that wrong, take a bold stand; say it's wrong and ban it completely."


* Anecdotally, many smokers say they have tried the Quitline programme where smokers are given telephone support by a counsellor and nicotine patches. However, many say they lied about how they were doing as they felt embarrassed and weak at their inability to stop smoking. "One time I was on the phone to the Quitline guy and I had a cigarette in my hand and one in the ashtray still burning. My patches were lying in a drawer. He was so persistent about phoning me and checking up on me I felt like too much of a loser to say I couldn't do it. Quite often I'd be on the phone smoking and lying to him about how well I was doing," Juaniti, 36, says.

* While many say that reading Allen Carr's Easyway to Stop Smoking book cured them of nicotine addiction, it is by no means foolproof. "I found myself craving cigarettes while reading it," Angela says. "I read it four times and each time I found my habit becoming more and more expensive. I know two people who read it and stopped instantly. I don't know why it didn't work for me."

* There is hope! Dr Brent Caldwell of the University of Otago in Wellington, is now running a successful trial using a new nicotine mouth spray which is making quitting so much easier. Those involved in the Zonnic and Patch trial are reportedly having great success in stopping smoking after many previous attempts, and the first interim figures in relation to trial participants will be available in the new year. If found to be successful it may be a very important addition to efforts to help New Zealand reduce its 22 per cent smoking rate, which still results in around 5000 smoking- related deaths a year.


"Non"-smokers who bum cigarettes are tolerated by smokers but don't be a repeat offender.

"I don't smoke but when I've had a couple I always feel like one, but I don't want to buy a packet. Can I have one or 17 of yours?"

Cigarettes are expensive. If you choose to smoke more than one random cigarette buy some yourself. Once you have bummed a cigarette consider it ill-advised to give a lecture on the dangers of smoking.

In a poll of 250 people, 89 per cent of non-smokers say that at parties they always end up joining the smokers' circle outside as that is where the laughter is loudest. The same poll found that of 200 smokers, 98 per cent have tried to give up at some point and 84 per cent would be happy if the Government chose to ban tobacco sales outright. 

The Press