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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