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Thursday, 10 March 2011

The War On Smokers....The Wolf In Sheep's Clothing?

So the Government has performed an unprecedented, but not altogether surprising U-turn, on the idea of scrapping a law that would have seen all cigarette vending machines and shop displays banned in the UK this year.  They propose now that as of April next year, all large stores will have to keep the product out of sight, with the same rule imposed on smaller shops three years later.  One assumes the decision to stagger this is to work as a gesture, acknowledging the probable loss of around £250,000,000 to newsagents and corner shops?  I'm sure the small shop owners are very grateful for the reprieve, just as the pub mangers were grateful for the smoking ban a couple of years ago.  This was a decision that pulverised the "end of the road" local pubs, with over 1000 closed since the ban was brought in; I am not pulling figures from the sky, feel free to check it out for yourselves.  The greatest side-effect of this legislation was the inevitable rise of the large pub-come restaurant, and the trendy wine bar (fine if you like wine, I guess), which whilst cheap and cheerful, are generally vacuous shells that only work as a meeting place before moving on to more interesting events.

The local pub, with the great jukebox, the good ale, the darts and pool, the live music, and the cosy, relaxed atmosphere is still dying, a casualty of Labour's lack of foresight and rigid regulation; they provided absolutely no choice to the licensee: no vote, no proposal of an alternative, no introduction of any idea such as a smoking licence, simply stop smoking in your pub and watch it crumble.  Despite the fact that there exist such things as extraction systems, the manufacturers of which we must also remember are losing out, despite that there could have been an option for smoking areas to be designated (not outside under a shelter, thus effectively creating a boundary between people who want to enjoy each other's company and ostracizing the smoker), and despite the fact that other countries prove this to be completely effective, the Government still considered a straight-out ban to be better for everyone's health and better had nothing to do with the economic investment any of the above would have required.  Whilst the last point would be vehemently denied by any official, we all know it to be a good one, but how stopping people smoking inside a pub or club is a good idea is beyond me.  It is a major culture shift preventing many of the older generation, otherwise good-paying, long-time customers, from going out and spending money; they prefer instead to stay inside and have friends round for a good time....NOT spending money.  Surely in a time of economic downturn, this is a bad thing, or is it just me?

One might think this is no big deal; people still have the freedom to head outside for their cigarette, which they can do together, and if they are the only smoker in a group, they may be able to head out with a friend who has no issue providing company for five minutes.  What about in the freezing winter?  Well, they can just wait for their cigarette if they are that much in need of their fix, as after all, it is nobody else's vice, and it is not fair to ask the non-smoker to sit around smokers when they do not want to be subject to the second-hand smoke.  Okay, this is a fair argument, but a couple of points:

First, the "fact" that second-hand smoke is significantly damaging to a human being in today's world is one I am deeply suspicious of.  I often picture with amusement an obese, white-collar gentleman on his lunch break in London, sat outside the Wetherspoon's on a hot summer's day, happily drinking his pint of lager amidst the smog of the traffic, the asphalt thrown into the air by the changes forever being made to the city's architecture, asking the person sat across the table from him if they wouldn't mind putting out their fag because "the second hand smoke isn't good for me".  As for this argument not holding water when applied to more rural areas (beside the fact that there should not have to be an exception to the rule in the first place), I would ask what all this worry is about global warming?  Sorry, it's "climate change" now, isn't it?  It does affect....everywhere, right?  Or is that a scaremongering myth too?  Can't have it both ways, Mister.  Let's say you don't agree that second-hand smoke is a physical issue, but rather is just something you want to avoid on the basis that it smells bad, or you don't like it on your clothes.  Grow up and stop being a baby!  For years and years and years smokers and non-smokers have communed together quite happily, and until someone started pointing out how awful smoking is, I don't think anyone ever really gave a shit.

Isn't all of this just misdirection?  The point is everybody has rights!  Yes, you have the right to not smoke, but that does not negate smokers' privilege to have their drug, just as it is a drinker's privilege to have theirs.  Personally, I do not disagree that smoking is an activity that should be illegal in certain situations: where food is prepared and people are eating, where there is public performance in an enclosed space, theatres, cinemas, cars, etc. but that is partly due to the fact it infringes on the right of the non-smoker I was just referring to, as there is no avoiding it, it can be off-putting, distracting and unsafe!  But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water; if something bothers you that much, learn to wash your clothes, vet people before committing to a friendship, or do what people have done for as long as man has had the ability to think.....get over it!

We begrudgingly bowed to this ruling, even the smokers just get on with the situation, but now we have this proposal of banning shop displays, vending machines, and even a move to make packaging plain and uninteresting.  Okay, let's break this down.  Vending machines I agree with; I have no issue with the complete removal of machines, as they do indeed provide easy access to young people, and according to the Government Health Minister, one of the drives for this decision is to safeguard young people's wellbeing, to ensure that only those old enough to make a real, informed choice have even the possibility of gaining access to cigarettes.  Phasing out shop displays for the same reason?  Have we heard of ID?  Shall we phase out all games and movies with a certificate higher than a "PG"?  Shall we remove all alcohol from the shelves just because we can't be bothered to enforce the control shop-owners and governing bodies provide to employees?  Young people see smokers...smoking....quite often it's their parents, or it's in films, or TV (until representation of smoking in art becomes illegal!).   Surprise, surprise, people smoke!  This does not automatically encourage young people to want to be a smoker, it is not an ambition; in most cases it is an experiment, a testing of the water, part of growing up, just as it is with other drugs and sex; in most cases it will pass.  All of that aside, how about good parenting and education, or are we not going to bother relying on that at all now?  As for any other reason we are phasing out displays....the people who want the product will still know it is there, this is not "out of sight, out of mind"; an addict is an addict, and regardless of whether you have it on the shelf or not, they will still buy it.

Having established that their rhetoric on shop displays is tripe, let's look at the other point, the packaging.  If removing adverts from TV, providing helplines for those who want to quit their habbit, and slapping big, boldly printed warnings like "SMOKING KILLS" alongside pictures of black lungs is not stopping somebody smoking, what is a plain package going to do, exactly?  I'm really curious. We know the risks, they are made very clear....a smoker is not a moron!  What they are is an adult who should be trusted to make a decision based on the information provided, and offered help if they want to stop.  Perhaps they're working on the logic that green ketchup didn't sell; it looked different so it didn't do very well?  No, it looked disgusting, so it didn't sell; people still bought the red ketchup.  Making cigarettes look less interesting is a ridiculous and pointless move; NEWSFLASH: People aren't interested in what it look like, they want what is inside

I would have more respect for this battle being fought if they were to just come out and be honest; I said at the time of the ban that I would have appreciated it more if they had simply said smoking is illegal.  Sure, people wouldn't have been happy, but from my perspective, at least the sound bite that it is out of concern for the nation's health would have been a believable one.  Of course the reality is that it is hypocrisy, another cog installed in what could be a Nanny State, and it makes me angry.  How can we take seriously the claim that this is all about the damage to our health, when we see a McDonalds on every corner, spending on junk food is encouraged every five minutes on TV and radio, and alcohol is still our friend?  The fact is tobacco provides too much revenue for the coffers, and why remove such a terrific money horse?  Of course, they want to have their cake and eat it, pocked the money, chastise the customer; in what other form of business would this not be disgustingly immoral?  The fact that Mr Cameron told The Publican back in 2008, "I don't like smoking bans, I'm just not a banner", makes it all so much worse; at best it emphasises just how useless a coalition Government is, and at worst, sadly, it illustrates his ability to lie effectively.

This is really just the second step in a rather badly disguised move to ultimately make smokers the bad guys, to make smoking some awful, immoral act, with anyone who partakes in the activity made out to be somebody with whom one would not want to associate.  If one does not believe this, listen more carefully to the tactics used in the manipulative NHS adverts, which attempt to guilt-trip smokers.  Apparently smoking is now a strain on the NHS (and illegal immigration isn't?); oh no, the NHS have to treat people who are ill, what shock and horror!  If someone is sick, someone is sick, and they are entitled to help; the day they prove, without shadow of any doubt, that smoking caused the cancer of the patient is probably the day the patient will be more than happy to cough up for treatment (oh yeh, I made a pun).  This won't happen though, and do you know why?  Because it will always be refutable; the point of something being proven is that the rule has no exception, and how do we account for the thousands of smokers, who have smoked forever, who are living perfectly fine, happy, albeit perhaps not particularly healthy lives?  The answer is...we ignore that bit.  If you want further evidence that this is a ploy to ostracize the smoker, and perhaps the most damning kind, look at Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who is quoted as saying about the moves that they are attempts to "change social attitudes towards smoking."  The sad part is, it seems to be working, there does appear to be a shift in the view of smoking, with it turning up as a questions in some job applications now, alongside other things that don't matter, like sexual orientation and religion.  Look, if you don't want to associate with a smoker, that is your choice, your right, although I must say you are probably going to miss out on some great friendships if you base such a decision on something so flimsy.

I speak as a non-smoker, as someone who does not have any interest in smoking, but also as someone who believes in a free society, where everybody has the right to do as they please without being singled out, outlawed and embarrassed.  The barefaced lie of all of this gets right under my skin, and in a country where violent crime is high, police numbers are low and could be reduced further, immigration remains unaddressed, teenage drinking and the spread of sexual disease are major issues, and whose international news bring home stories of a dictator openly killing his own people, the fact we are focusing resources on something so pathetic seems.....well, pathetic.  I urge anyone who is pushed to the same point as me, or who agrees that this is not right, to do your research, write to your MP, or even better the Health Secretary, and make it clear that whilst we like to read his stories, we are not happy to see George Orwell as a prophet!

Monday, 7 March 2011

Good People Exist

So there we were, having ventured out at about 11.00pm in my sister's car in order to aid her boyfriend, whose Fiesta's tyre had punctured...the spare tyre, that is!  With us we took a pump, in the vague hope that it would be a slow puncture, and with him living only ten miles or so away, it might at least get him to the next garage where he could fill up on the free air properly, and get safely home.  No such luck; both cars pulled into the slip road outside a locked garden centre, hazard lights on, the car jacked up and him pumping away, it quickly became clear that it was useless.  Next option was my sister's spare; we pulled it from the back of her car, hoping against hope that the size might be the same, but of course it wasn't.  Next thought was his mother's tyres; perhaps they would be the same and we could arrange a swap?  No chance.  The only thing left was to call the recovery people, at which point he has a spiky conversation with the operative; we find ourselves thinking, there they are, sat in a warm room in a comfy chair, being all funny about the fact a spare tyre hadn't been it's so much more fun to break down on a cold night, interrupt this bloke's game of Pacman, and sit around for hours waiting for assistance than it is to be in bed! 

Upon confirmation that there will be a charge, despite being a paying member of this particular service, we decide it's an idea to move my sister's car round in front of the broken down Fiesta, giving room for the service man when he arrives.  Oh how ironic that I had been thinking only an hour earlier that all we need is for this car to break down as passing, you know?  What happens?  Dead battery!  So we push the car round to get it jump started, only to find the thing sparking.  In sheer disbelief at our bad luck, we decide it's best to leave it and wait for the aid to arrive, at which point we can ask.  We stand on the verge, nicely away from the cars; we give a wave to the police who drive we're not committing any major drug deals out here, and we're perfectly fine, thanks for stopping and checking....we give the obligatory finger to the chavs who speed by honking their horn at us...and we wait.

Perhaps half hour later, what is this, a car approaching us...coming the wrong way up the carridgeway, a siiver car!  Shit, the way our luck has been so far, we just know this is trouble; they've come back to humiliate us further at best, at worst beat and rob us!  I was only thinking earlier in the day that it had been a rather quiet, uneventful weekend, and had wished that something interesting would happen.  This is not what I had in mind, God!  The two of us guys are up and running  back to the two broken cars, my sister is ready with her phone....and what is this, one man in a grey tracksuit emerging from the car, and a girl in the passenger seat?  A different silver car.....a bloke asking what the problem is.  Very nice of him to go to the effort, but we figure there can only be one result here: "Can't do anything for you, mate, sorry and hope you get it sorted."  But no....he is driving a Fiesta...he has a spare...he is a second hand salesman who happens to deal with these cars?  Pretty freaky, but excellent news.  Can he offer the use of his spare?  Of course! He gets the spare from the back of his car, he removes his tools, he jacks the car up, changes the tyre.  How much for it?  Nothing, he says....simply return it?  Fair dos.  There's a look on the girl's face that says she's used to this; does this guy drive around late at night, looking for broken down cars to fix?  No, he just happens to have been to Southend for a one-off job, saw the hazard lights, and decided it would be fun to turn around, drive the wrong way up the road and offer his free assistance.  I start to wonder where his cape is, given that before even looking at changing the tyre on the Fiesta, he offers a jump on my sister's car as well.  Where does he come from....about 15 minutes away, and what should we do about my sister's dodgy battery, which is clearly shot, since it dies after having hazards on?  "Pop it round when you get the tyre back to me, get a battery and I'll do it for you".  So, no cash wanted, no rush on getting the tyre back?  Not at all.  And why all this effort on his part?  Because he has been in our situation and figured he could help.

Safe to say we were stunned by the way a whole load of bad luck became one giant dollop of good luck in the form of one gentleman who just happened to be passing, and out of nothing but the goodness of his heart, performend a bit of magic and got us of a horrible, cold spot within ten minutes.  Incidentally, during this time the recovery service have called and are trying to find our location; I feel slightly bad for the driver, who does not yet know that Mr Magic Car Repairman here has come along, sprinkled some magic dust and fixed everything before he has even been made aware the job has been cancelled.

A man who would not have been driving that stretch had he not had a one off job that evening, who deals with Fiestas, who is driving a Fiesta, who has a spare, jumper cables and tools, who turned around and came back the wrong way, who lives on our doorstep, and who wants nothing for any of this?  It's almost enough to make me believe in a God.  Proof people: there are good people around, they exist!  This particular good person restored some of my faith in humanity on this cold, quiet night.