The Dying Embers…the last days of the smoke filled rooms

Ok, I know it’s late in the day, but it’s never too late to come out of the closet. I have to own up to having been a member of an oppressed majority for many years: non-smokers in the labour movement.

Yes, there are considerate smokers, I know. My partner’s daughter accepts that when she visits us she has to go outside to smoke. She doesn’t have a problem with this, and being considerate, she would not dream of forcing anybody to breathe in her smoke.
Oh, but the labour movement. Why has it been full for so many years with people who, whilst fighting for the rights of people at work, could not give a damn about the rights of other people when it came to smoking? You must have met the character, the trade union activist who passionately believes that his ‘democratic right’ to smoke is an absolute. And your right not to breathe it in? It’s not even on his radar. It’s a question of his ‘freedom’.

For many years, be it in the pub or labour movement meetings (often the meetings were in pubs), thousands of us used to troop in and put up with smoke filled rooms. Of course the culture of the labour movement has advanced since then. There will probably be no smoking in your conference now, though many venues took the decision by banning smoking. But the cultural advance did not include social events, of course. The smokers made up for lost time.

Many years ago I had an NUR official, a good bloke, in most respects, who was more or less a chain smoker. Nothing would stop him smoking in union meetings. You could even vote to make them non-smoking, but he would ignore it. One occasion, we had a committee meeting in a small room, and he never stopped. He managed to put me off work for two weeks.

If you don’t like cigarette smoke, or if you have a respiratory problem, such as asthma, for many years it was always difficult to go to labour movement meetings. When I developed a hyper-sensitivity to cigarette smoke, I had to bow out of events because they reduced me to a wheezing wreck. If you tentatively asked for – not demanded – no smoking in a meeting you were made to feel like a freak, an anti-smoking fanatic. Sometimes it was given grudgingly. One regional organisation I used to attend had no smoking in the meeting and then as soon as we reached the break they lit up in the same room, defeating the purpose of having no smoking in the meeting.

It never occurred to the militant ‘smoking rights’ fraternity that people might be discouraged from exercising their democratic right to participate in their union by their reluctance or inability to sit in smoking meetings.It was pretty much the same in life in general. Smoking was so ubiquitous that not only could you not go to a pub if you had a problem with cigarette smoke. It was difficult to find a restaurant where you could avoid somebody lighting up just as you were about to tuck into your meal.

Where smoking has been banned, in cinemas or on the London Underground, it was the result of accidents in which people were killed as a result of fires caused by cigarettes. Now we have the furore over the Parliamentary vote introducing a smoking ban in public places. I know smokers who are not troubled by the vote. Some of them, addicted as they are, see it as an encouragement to give up smoking. But the spectacle of left wing activists, being outraged by this apparent attack on ‘civil liberties’…it, pun intended, takes your breath away.

A friend of mine tells me that I am imposing my ‘life-style choices’ on other people! The reality is the opposite. Smokers have imposed their ‘life-style choices’ on me and many others for years. We have been forced to breathe in smoke and go home reeking of the smell for years.

I have even heard left wingers quoting scientific investigation funded by the tobacco companies to prove that ‘passive smoking’ is no great threat! But even if you believe that passive smoking will not kill somebody, what is incontestable is that it will do your health no good.

The history of the tobacco companies is well known. They resisted all evidence that smoking harmed smokers. They rigged the evidence, they carried out an ideological war against all the evidence showing the destructive impact of smoking. They fill their product with carcinogenic substances. They have made a fortune at the expense of making people ill, the bill being picked up by our health service.

Having said that, if somebody choses to smoke, that is their choice. If people want to fill the coffers of the tobacco companies by buying their product that is their choice. I think they are stupid doing something which is so detrimental to their health, but I have no objection to them doing so, provided I do not have to breathe in their smoke.

I can’t help but ruefully remember the picture a room full of health and safety reps, desperately lighting up in the break of an RMT Health & Safety conference, in any area without doors, meaning the smoke drifted through to the main hall.

What about the health and safety of staff in service industries, like pubs, clubs, and restaurants. Ah, says the defender of the ‘democratic right’ of the smoker to force other people to breathe in their smoke, if they don’t like it they shouldn’t work in such a job. No doubt Norman Tebbitt would tell them to ‘get on their bikes’. But not everybody can get the job that they want. So the trade union struggle for health and safety in the workplace is abandoned at the pub or restaurant door? Both the TGWU and the GMB, unions with members who work in smoking environments have supported the ban. There has been no revolt amongst their members.

I have also read that the vote in Parliament is the result of the authoritarian nature of New Labour. This is not true. Remember the Bernie Eccleston affair? The government prevaricated over its commitment to introduce a ban of cigarette advertising for many years. Moreover, in the face of opposition it proposed the ‘compromise’ solution. It only abandoned it, giving a free vote, when it realised that it would lose the vote in Parliament.

But could we not have smoking pubs and non-smoking pubs? The problem with this ‘solution’, of course, is that in the absence of a ban most owners would be frightened to lose their custom if they became a non-smoking establishment. I have even heard a publican say this.

I am not demanding that smokers give up smoking. It’s their life. But for years the law has allowed them to take away the civil liberties, and restricted the lives of those who do not want to breathe in cigarette smoke, or even worse are made ill by it.

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