Saturday, 3 March 2012

Stigmatising smokers different from stigmatising tobacco companies?

Professor Hilary Graham this week criticised the use of stigma against smokers. It's kind of her but I am not sure how much it advances any argument. It was covered by a few publications: this one reports:
She has now called for a rethink on how smoking is portrayed and for the focus to be on education rather than vilification.
So what exactly does this change? The health establishment sees too many smokers among the population and especially among its disadvantaged. Beginning with the smoking ban, it has created an excessive fear of secondary smoke. It has sought to portray smokers as vulnerable and mainly poor. It has always been part of their mission to reduce what they call 'health inequalities', which (unbelievably) it actually believes smoking causes. The general public has taken its cue and come to the conclusion that smokers are smelly and pathetic as well as being murderers. At least, a vocal minority has taken this line.

The glitterati of the tobacco control movement don't have to enforce ridiculous laws like the smoking ban. (They can leave that to juniors in the environmental health departments.) They feel responsible for social inequalities – how can they fail to feel responsible, having trumped scholars through the ages by discovering what causes disparities in health in the community?

They have successfully split the left wing, which used to be friendly to working-class and community solidarity, by invoking the demon 'tobacco company' as a typical 'big business'. Tobacco funding has become dirty and is not even allowed to sponsor football matches, while, in the course of business, corporations can buy votes and ensure the success of their projects.

Professor Graham's idea of education rather than vilification doesn't fundamentally challenge anything, as the language of anti-tobacco has always been paternalistic rather than adversarial. Highly educated tobacco control professionals are taking it on themselves to explain the problems of the poor through a tobacco-soaked lens, and trying to persuade them of the errors of their ways. They encourage the community to see them as helpless addicts and have even campaigned successfully for legislation that will take them out of social circulation, to prevent them being role models for the rest of us. Hysteria about tobacco has encouraged people to think that those who have lost loved ones to heart, lung, or other 'smoking-related' complaints can justly blame tobacco, because nothing else makes people ill, right?

We are in other words in a situation where the powerful class has managed to influence social relations profoundly, and where the less powerful are told by the powerful how to behave in polite society. They are denied public space and the powerful are seeking ways to invade their private space. (They have already substantially invaded it by defining pubs, which are business enterprises as 'public places'.) There is no way that smokers can easily engage in any form of social protest, without accepting their subordination as a group. Those that cannot adapt to this requirement will see social protest as not concerning them – they will be marginalised.

And they will be the most marginalised, and perhaps in the most need of direct political action, of coming together to discuss, make plans, support each other.

No Professor Graham – you may be well intentioned, but you don't really understand that it is the purpose of tobacco control to disenfranchise and marginalise smokers, and the hateful expression of the most virulent anti-smokers is inevitable collateral damage.


Lysistrata said...

An excellent post, Belinda. Your careful and polite words cannot hide the deep anger that you feel, and I share.

How dare these cosy self-appointed health cultists destroy the places in which ordinary people used to meet and socialise together in real communities - having lied that the smoking ban would actually increase business - and then get paid for studying and describing the very destruction they created?

What sort of twisted moral code do they have that, having spent millions of pounds to bring fear and misery and isolation to over one-quarter of our population, they then weep crocodile tears after "scientifically" researching their refuse-to-quit laboratory rats and finding that people are actually pretty miserable at being vilified?

You know the biggest problem about being poor and 'health inequalities' (for which there are large grants available for health providers in the UK if you can tick the box)?

It's not, actually, smoking. It's poverty itself. Try telling any parent watching their baby die in Bangladesh or large parts of Africa that poverty and starvation aren't the world's leading preventable causes of death. Try telling it to a parent living in a reeking damp flat on an estate in Govan or Gillingham for that matter.

I don't know whether to cry or laugh.

Wiel said...

I completely agree with your comment and Belinda's post.

Some of the TC folks seem to be realising that 'something is wrong' in their movement, but it's always difficult to step down from an ivory tower. This is still just rational, not emotional. The big step will be to step 'down' from the rational to the emotional level. Even Michael Siegel (who had a good opportunity today on Canadian TV ( to show that he has an empathic view on the case, can't imagine what impact their strategies have on (adult) smokers. They are blinded by bad education that didn't include psychology, sociology and related (but important) scientific topics.
The main entry point shouldn't be health only, but 'well-being', which not only means health but is also including emotional, economic and social well-being.

Lysistrata said...

Thank you. Never thought I'd post a music link on this blog!

'You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why.'

Common People, of course.