Sunday, May 28, 2006

Against Bill 112: When a cigar isn’t just a cigar

As I have noted elsewhere, there is exactly one exception to Quebec’s upcoming smoking ban: cigar bars. Not shisha bars, not bingo halls, not homeless shelters, but cigar bars, in which the smoking of cigarettes will be expressly forbidden. Why cigars and not cigarettes? Presumably, the former are no safer—and certainly no sweeter-smelling—than the latter. Also, presumably, cigar bar employees are no less deserving of protection from environmental pollutants than other service industry workers. So what gives?

C’mon, anyone?

It has to be said, and I may as well be the one to say it: there is a class dimension to all of this that reeks worse than a cheap stogie. Why else would what is indisputably an elite pleasure be mysteriously exempted from the ban, when all others are considered fair game for elimination?

Studies show that, since smoking rates began to decline in the late 1960s, a disproportionate percentage of cigarette smokers belong to the working class or to the ranks of the poor. For better or for worse, smoking is what people of limited means do to socialize, to relieve stress, and to break up the workday. It is, in other words, a part of the culture that one inhabits when one is poor, a culture that the vast majority of doctors, health researchers, and government ministers know absolutely nothing about.

This is, I suspect, what the Scottish MP John Reid meant when, in his response to the Labour Party’s 2004 proposal to ban smoking in public housing projects, he derided the bill’s supporters as the “meddling” middle class. From his remarks:

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.

Reid, who was Britain’s Health Secretary at the time, sparked a national uproar with his statement, which was attacked as irresponsible, even dangerous. His response:

If we cannot even begin to discuss, question, and honestly explore the circumstantial and cultural factors which might have led to [health] inequalities without the sort of hysterical reaction we have seen in certain quarters in recent days, then it perhaps begins to explain why we have failed in the first place.

If nothing else, Reid knows of what he speaks. The son of a postman and a factory worker, Reid left school at age sixteen, returning several years later, via the Open University, to earn a doctoral degree in history. He is also a former smoker, who is said to have smoked sixty cigarettes a day before giving up the habit in 2003. As such, he understands that the nature of one’s relationship to risk depends enormously on which class culture you call home.

In the neighbourhood I grew up in, smoking was commonplace, but so too were workplace accidents and other environmental hazards. My father lost his hearing to the din of a steel factory, for which he receives “workman’s” compensation. My mother lost two of her fingers to an industrial lathe, for which she received no compensation. My friend Joey’s father, an auto mechanic, had his chest crushed by a faulty car jack. My friend Ilir’s father was almost electrocuted on a construction site. It was awful, but it's how things were.

I remember well the gnawing childhood fear that my father might be killed at work, and the sense of relief I felt when he arrived safely home. I also remember that the first thing he would do when he came in the door was to light a cigarette and open a bottle of beer. This is what relaxed him, after a twelve-hour shift of heat and noise and dirt, and, three years into his retirement, it still does.

In a few days time, my father and I will be forbidden to smoke a cigarette in a public establishment anywhere in the province of Quebec, while the considerably wealthier patrons of Quebec’s cigar bars will have their right to smoke enshrined in law. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the contradiction.


Anonymous said...

great analysis. the class dimensions of health policies, especially of "public health" legislation, never get discussed in everyday media coverage. very glad that you have pointed out some of these dimensions so articulately in this piece.

Vila H. said...

Thanks. What troubles me the most about the way that health issues are framed is that they are seen to stand outside of culture, of which class is one important component. I am even more troubled by the apparent impossibility of even discussing these dimensions of the issue, which speaks volumes about the political climate we are in. If I could, I'd vote for John Reid in a heartbeat.