Smoking pariahs

Smokers are not the greatest social pariahs but they’re in the leading pack. Anytime soon those who suck deadly smoke into their lungs will overtake junkies, if they haven’t already, and if their advance in the pariah stakes continues at its rate of the past two decades they’ll be challenging paedophiles within a decade.

Thirty years ago smokers weren’t at even the bottom of the pariahs’ scale. We, and I was one of them, were among the elites, led so elegantly by Stuart Wagstaff and his exhortations to light up a Benson & Hedges when only the best will do. And the people’s hero Paul Hogan sold smoking to countless Australians with his ‘‘anyhow, have a Winfield’’ line.

We expressed our sophistication by offering a cigarette to others whenever we lit up, and lighting up on meeting was an expression of amicability. Even roll-your-owners would proffer a packet of tobacco.

Health warnings on cigarette packets from 1972 didn’t seem to deter anyone, and as Hogan, Wagstaff, the Marlboro Man and others filled our media with their deadly message most smokers scoffed at the warnings. The line that people who’ve never smoked die of lung cancer was a common and comforting line, and someone always knew someone’s uncle who was still smoking at 97.

But ever so slowly smoking came to be seen as smelly, dirty, offensive.

And now, at long last, after a High Court rejection this week of a tobacco industry challenge, cigarettes and other tobacco products are to be sold in plain, unbranded packages. Will smokers feel a little like the alcoholic who hides his bottle in a brown paper bag? Or a lot like the alcoholic? A little or a lot like the sleaze who hides the porn magazine in a newspaper?

We can see how they feel as they huddle like fagging fountains outside their workplaces, and we pity them. And they look pitiful. I sometimes wonder what is going through their mind as they suck. Take your pick: ‘‘It’s my right to smoke!’’, ‘‘I don’t care what you think!’’, ‘‘I wish I didn’t have to do this’’, ‘‘It’s just a normal cough’’, ‘‘I’m probably healthier than they are’’, ‘‘They could get hit by a bus’’.

I’ve been there, regretting, fearing, and defiantly smoking. I’ve challenged the anti-smokers in the office to running races. I have held smoking as a right. And when I was diagnosed with a smoking-related cancer I was overwhelmed not by the prospect of dying but by the fact that I had let my family down. Do any of those pumping carcinogens through their spongelike lungs ask themselves as they stand back to the wall who would look after the kids?

These people are addicts, gripped by a habit that is more likely to kill them than are many illegal drugs likely to kill their junkies. NSW Health says that one in every two smokers will die prematurely as a result of being a smoker, that smoking is the biggest cause of premature death in NSW.

Yet we allow an industry to sell these deadly products, and while we try to limit its capacity to create new addicts the industry fights for greater rights to create more.

Steadily, inexorably, the smoker has been confined, barred from smoking in public transport more than two decades ago to smoking in their own car if it has a child passenger recently, and advertising, displays and now branded packaging are out lest they promote the addiction.

Yet we have stopped painfully short of what’s required. Early next year it is expected that smokers in NSW will be barred from taxi ranks, bus stops, sporting complexes and the vicinity of children’s playground equipment, but these now are tiny steps delaying the final step.

That final step is to bar smoking in a public place. And for the purposes of that a public place is a place, privately owned or not, that is used by the public. Such a ban will remove the last and perhaps the most influential promotion of smoking, other people smoking. It is, I believe, a powerful inducement among young people especially.

It is time.

Should smoking be confined to private homes? Without children? Or should smokers be free to kill themselves at our expense?

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