The poor are smoking? The real question is who set them on fire

An interesting little sociological discussion has broken out in the UK over poor people and smoking. According to a piece in The Times, Heath Secretary John Reid said:

"I just do not think the worst problem on our sink estates by any means is smoking, but that is an obsession of the learned middle class.

"What enjoyment does a 21-year-old single mother of three living in a council sink estate get? The only enjoyment sometimes they have is to have a cigarette,"

This unexpected outburst from the Health Secretary brought a response from Deborah Arnott, director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) in one of the all-time great quotes:

"If John Reid's contribution to the white paper on smoking is let the poor smoke, then his policy on obesity must be let them eat cake."

Boom boom.

It's a tough one to argue that poor people should be freely allowed to commit a slow suicide because they have so little else to live for. Rather than phrasing the argument as a 'health' or 'civil liberties' dilemma, this one is ultimately a question of economics. Rational individuals will look after their necessities before looking after their luxuries. If I can't scrape together the cash to buy my next packet of two-minute noodles for dinner, I'm not likely to be seeing Troy at my local Gold Class cinema. Or smoking a pack of Winnie Blues.

Unless cigarettes are now all of a sudden a necessity, up there with food, shelter and clothing, then their consumption is not one that can be easily justified by those who are going without necessities. Furthermore, the argument for increasing welfare payments (a separate but related discussion) is dramatically weakened if the existing payments are being rolled and smoked (although I wouldn't recommend it with the new polymer notes unless you get high on the smell of burnt plastic). Whilst sympathy is usually deserved for doing it tough, it's a lot harder to be sympathetic when knowing that a fair proportion of welfare ends up being spent on pokies, ciggies and booze. A tough call, perhaps it's the Tony Abbott within, but a fair one.


Anonymous said…
Very interesting issue.

Does this mean that poor junkies get off scott free too? Because afterall, you can't expect a 21 year old single mother of three to go without crack.

So, currently, rich and famous people get off because they're troubled celebrities, and the poor get off cos sympathy's easier than action. Got it.

And personally, I'm not much for cake.

From Benny G.
NahumAyliffe said…
Well, I've got to say that this Dr Reid sounds like a complete drongo. The only enjoyment for these poor, patronised lower class is a cigarette...

The rational individual does not rationalize that their actions will lead to their death, although most will acknowledge that the smoking contributes to OTHER people getting cancer. The marketing of cigarettes is that they are a luxury item, and they always have been. The images used are typically debonair depictions of a carefree existence. For decades, films have made their stars strut around sucking a Mild Seven.

And the sleight of hand by the cigarette companies, is to fill the 10cm of tobacco with as many addictive drugs as possible, to make the deathsticks a necessity. The rational individual makes a decision on what is necessary, and cigarette rate more highly than food, to the detriment of the addict and their families. If you think otherwise, just check out your local pokie parlour for a living example of typical addict behaviour.

The argument that you miss out on is that presented by Deborah Arnott later in the piece, where she says that more damage is done to the passive smoker than the smoker. The 21 year old mother breathes in the smoke through a filter, but her 2 year old, and her neighbours breathe it right on in. And they are the ones at the greatest risk, because their lungs are unaccustomed to smoke if they never smoke. Unlike our 21 year old, they don't have a layer of tar in their lungs to protect them from greater detriment (than having a layer of tar in your lungs presumably).

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