Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005
For all I know she is a skilful doctor, but Margaret McCartney, a GP based in Glasgow who has written this Guardian article, comes across as goodhearted but too ditzy for serious punditry. Good thing it's only the Guardian. She writes:
Always easier to let folk pay tax and smoke rather than to deal with the nitty gritty problems of inequality that led them to buy fags for their "only enjoyment" in the first place. It sounds suspiciously like a let-them-eat-cake kind of argument, but with a shorter life expectancy instead of icing to top it off.
In these lines she seems to be saying that government reluctance to crack down on smoking is caused by a combination of an unworthy desire for tax revenue and a lack of stomach for the fight to enact controversial policies of redistribution. In other words, an anti-smoking crackdown would be a good thing, only the wimps won't do it. Yet earlier she says she resents being nagged about her hair and "feels strongly" that she doesn't want to have to start nagging her patients about their weight. These ideas can be reconciled, sort of, by saying that ending inequality would mean people no longer wanted to smoke, so the government wouldn't need to "let" them, but why that should be is never explained. Nor is it explained where the tax base would come from once the smokers and the rich were out of the picture.

A little later, after a smidgin of praise for the website of the smokers' rights organisation Forest, she says:

The idea that we all choose our poison with liberty and freedom is entirely wrong. Take a look at the figures on smoking and social class: the lower the social class, the more likely a person is to smoke.
And that disproves the idea that we choose our poison with freedom how? It seems that practically no one in Britain is too poor to smoke. Inspiring, really.

Dr McCartney continues:

In effect, no such freedom of choice exists. My job would be easy if people chose smoking from one of the many pleasures they had the equal choice to pursue.
Personally I've always wondered why the long-term unemployed spend so little time on macramé. They could spend the mornings wandering the streets looking for discarded string and the afternoons making useful and attractive pot-holders. Reading and fornication are other inexpensive pastimes.

Why the popularity of the former among the poorer classes has declined and that of the latter increased over the last century is an interesting question. It can't be absolute poverty and it can't be inequality. Both of these were greater in 1905 than now. It is also worthwhile to note that as our government has taken a more active role in redistributing income, smoking, once common across all classes, is now concentrated among those who receive state money.

Before I digress too far I must say that at this point in the article I had a pleasant surprise. The usual rule is that any statement that people are not really free is immediately followed by a call to give them even less freedom. (Ban macramé now!) Yet in this case the call never came.

I warmed to the doctor. However I simply didn't get the next bit:

But if you really wanted to make the opportunity to smoke equal, then you would have to start shoving free cigarettes through nice middle-class letterboxes.
Um, why? Middle class people already have more disposable income than poor people, right? So it's already easier for them to buy cigarettes, yet in general they buy fewer. Why does Dr McCartney consider (even in jest) that increasing the disparity in disposable income between classes yet further would be a good thing? We already agree that the middle class usually make better health decisions. Arranging for this to be illustrated by equalising the mortality rates across classes (by giving the usually-wiser class worse incentives) makes the point no clearer than it already is.

To be fair, in her conclusion she is inching closer towards the same destination as I am (and therefore, naturally, to being correct), although she starts badly:

In reality, we don't have equal access to fags,
Please drop this, Doctor. In so far as differing wealth gives us unequal access to fags, one would expect the middle classes to smoke more. You can argue that the experience of poverty gives people reason to smoke but that is not the same as access to fags. Some people get so used to defining poverty in terms of lack of access to computers, education, string etc., that they can't stop even when it does their argument no good. The root cause of this addiction is excessive access to the Guardian.

... and we have got so used to health scares that enormous black letters on cigarette packs warning that "SMOKING KILLS" are dismissed with the fatalism that is more rightly reserved for hair dyes and electricity pylons.
She is right there.
It's not just smoking in public places we should be thinking about; it's why the class divide about smoking persists at all.
I blame welfare.