Smoking, from sticks to carrots

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By Ray O’Reilly

Belgian MPs raised eyebrows with their recent banning of facial coverings like the burqa. Now, with a twist, factions have set their sights on smokers and work.

6 May 2010

Smoking is a major health risk and considered antisocial – by non-smokers at least. Punitive measures are already in place to discourage smoking, from frightening messages on the packets, to outright bans in public buildings, restaurants and all the usual places.

Belgian politician Roger Heyvaert (Open VLD) wants to go a step further by compensating non-smokers for the time smokers are thought to waste fagging outside. If I understand right, his proposal late last year was to give non-smokers two extra holidays as compensation. It’s a case of, “the sticks haven’t work, let’s try carrots and jealousy”.

It sounds like a joke, but in heindsight with the new facial covering decision, you almost have to take these things seriously. The recent law banning facial coverings, such as the burqa, niqab and, well, balaclavas, in public places proves that the Belgian parliament has the bite to back up its bark in these unusual cases. And that’s its not afraid of the global outrage (or indeed envy) it may trigger.

The smoking and health statistics are a potentially winning hand in this high-stakes law-making. Despite all the measures in recent years, the total number of daily smokers over 15 year’s old in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Balgium where the idea has been raised, has grown from 29% in 2002 to 32% in 2009, according to figures quoted in a recent sitting of the Commission for Wellbeing, Public Health, Family and Poverty. More men, especially in the lower social classes, have taken up smoking than women whose ranks are more evenly spread across classes.

If more Flemish are taking up the habit than quitting, what is the government doing wrong? Is it the government’s fault? The Commission goes on to compare the situation with what is happening in Iceland, and the impacts of modern-day stress and smoking habits – arguably a reason for more people smoking.

According to the spokesperson of the foundation against cancer, the impact of the economic crisis on increasing smoking behaviour is not what you would expect. The spokesperson is quoted as saying, “You could predict that people will smoke more because they have more stress. But in Iceland, the country which [was hit] heaviest by the [economic] crisis, it hasn’t happened. […] We suspect that the crisis has no influence on starting up smoking, but makes stopping more difficult.”

Smoke-free lives?

As a non-smoker, I find it hard to fault any initiative to discourage it. Going out to a bar or restaurant in Belgium used to be a curing experience. The ambient smoke would stick to your skin, hair and clothes. With Belgium’s smoking ban now in place in restaurants and pubs serving food, I can even take my kids to a restaurant without feeling like a bad parent.

And I’d be very surprised if anyone misses the smoking section on an airplane. I’m no physicist, but the notion of being able to contain smoke to the last seven rows in an airplane – or a corner of a restaurant in the bad old days – is laughable. Air conditioning can only do so much.

I’ve never worked in an office where smoking was permitted, but every workplace I’ve ever been in has a group of smokers who file out at regular intervals for their hit. When you’re on the 4th, 10th, or 20th floor, that’s quite a hike to the front of the building, where they congregate, hail or shine, for a stolen 15 minutes. Emphasis, perhaps, on stolen, because someone – the government, the employer – is paying for that ‘break’.

“But we’re discussing work,” the smokers routinely argue when the subject is broached. Or, my favourite, they carry a set of papers around, giving the impression that a fag break is really a work break, getting some (smoky) air to help the thinking processes.

The other argument I like is, “I need the cigarette – work is too stressful, bad economic times, etc.”  In other words, it’s not my fault I smoke, it’s the economy or the employer’s for putting me under so much pressure. “I deserve this smoke break!” [Sorry, but it seems the Icelanders have scuttled that last excuse!]

Rationalising smoking is a behaviour study atits finest.

Compensating behaviour

So, the idea put forward by Mr Heyvaert would be to compensate those workers who do not smoke. Great for non-smokers, but of course it raises a few sticky issues; none stickier than the ‘freedom and rights’ argument. Compensating non-smokers is really punishing smokers by stealth, one could argue. Indeed, it could be a back-handed rationale of the law-makers to try to arrest the worrying smoking trends in the land.

It could be a last-ditch effort, where social and health reasoning is apparently failing… to hit smokers where it hurts. I can’t predict which side business will come out on if this proposal grows legs. I guess it might also depend on who has to pay for the extra holidays. Business would probably rather stop the smokers taking fag breaks than compensate the non-smokers, but then we’re back to square one.

And there is the added problem of proving they have genuinely quit – urine tests, anyone? Our American friends are known to issue drug tests on employees, but I’m not aware of its widespread application here. That would be a can of worms to introduce, given much of Europe’s social-liberal leanings.

Let’s say the proposal does stand up and business is prepared to implement it. I can already hear the outrage among the smoking crowd. They’ll point their cigaretted fingers and accuse non-smokers of a cabal, they’ll rage against the machine, they’ll wave their blank sheets of paper around in disgust, then take another drag and all will be forgotten.

Published with the author’s permission.  © Ray O’Reilly. All rights reserved.

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Stilettos: career boosters for the down at heel?

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By Zandra Culliford

Just because I want to wear high heels to work, that doesn’t make me a brainless bimbo.

21 September 2009

The biggest news from last week’s Trades Union Congress in Liverpool struck a chord with the nation’s workers. Well, half of them at least.

A call for fair and transparent pay, perhaps? Or maybe support for affordable, convenient childcare? Nope. The hot topic of conversation amongst the unionistas was high heels in the workplace, with a motion tabled describing them as demeaning to women and demanding that no one be forced to wear them.

Aside from the issue of whether the role of trade unions should be to discuss what we put on our feet, this does beg the question of why we wear high heels in the first place.

To simply make us taller? If that’s the case, then why was Nicole Kidman so thrilled to dig her heels out after her divorce from Tom Cruise given that lack of stature clearly wasn’t the problem?

To attract the opposite sex, then? According to my male colleagues, the sound of heels on floor is more of an irritant than an aphrodisiac. Truth is, some of us just like wearing them. Whether the choice is for aesthetic, power or height reasons, there’s just something irresistible about the perfect pair.

Of course, high heels in the workplace aren’t just an issue for women. Comedian Eddie Izzard became known for his stand up in stilettos and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy would be, if not lost, then certainly shorter without his stacked heels.

Historically, the high heel is thought to have been developed for men and for a practical purpose – to prevent feet slipping out of stirrups when riding. Kings and queens alike then popularised the style for fashion purposes. Over time, though, they became almost exclusively the preserve of women and branded a tool of male oppression.

Some feminists have argued that women are held back and objectified when they choose to cripple themselves in a pair of wedges, stilettos or kitten heels. The transfer of this debate into the workplace is one that goes further than footwear.

The fact is that women have a wider variety of sartorial choices in general each morning before they head off to work. Even in offices where suits and ties aren’t required, men are likely to stick to the traditional trousers-shirt/t-shirt combo, teamed with a pair of unexciting, and almost invariably, flat shoes. Short of turning up topless, they’re unlikely to be accused of being sexually provocative, whatever they wear.

For women, a slightly low-cut blouse or skirt above the knee, on the other hand, can lead to disapproving (or worse, lecherous) looks and aspersions cast on a woman’s character.

Some have called for a work ‘uniform’ for women to become the norm, to make them as bland-looking as their male colleagues. Personally, I don’t think that such a move would make any difference. Women can, and do, customise their uniforms at the first possible opportunity.

When I was at school, it was amazing how many combinations of our conservative, ‘appropriate’ uniform could be seen in the halls. Prim, knee-length skirts were hitched up to crotch height, shirt buttons mysteriously came undone, and interpretations of ‘mid-height’ heels were liberal, to say the least.

But as grown-ups should we know better? Are we demeaned by putting on a pair of heels to go to the office? It is less than a hundred years since women were given the right to do most jobs, let alone to make choices about what to wear when we get there. Are we therefore undermining our right to employment equality by turning up in a pair of stilettos?

As far as I’m concerned, my right to wear six-inch heels is based on the same grounds as my right not to have to cover up in a burqa or to walk the streets without fear of being raped. I can do this because I believe that men are intelligent enough to realise that, just because they can see my ankles, I don’t necessarily want to sleep with them. Just as wearing high heels doesn’t make me a brainless bimbo.

With women’s continuing lack of complete equality in the workplace still a sticking point, is the answer to force women into Crocs? Of course not.

The height of my shoe has no more bearing on my ability to do my job than does the colour of my skin or my sexual preferences. By tabling motions on this issue, the Trades Union Congress does nothing more than reinforce stereotypes and draw attention to irrelevant differences between the sexes. If it wants true workplace equality in the shoe stakes, however, perhaps the answer, instead of getting women out of heels, is to get more men into them…

This article is published with the author’s permission. © Zandra Culliford. All rights reserved.

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