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Smokers - the new deviants

The Toronto Star, (Canada's largest daily newspaper) SPECIAL TO THE STAR, PATRICIA PEARSON, Aug. 20, 2006

"Smokers need not apply," ran a classified ad for a job in Ireland this past May.

"Why not?" asked Catherine Stihler, a British Labour party MEP, who posed the question on behalf of one of her constituents. Should women not apply, either? Or homosexuals? Muslims? What about high-functioning alcoholics, or fat people?

The answer, from the European Commission that oversees anti-discrimination legislation in the EU, came back to Stihler this month: Smokers are fair game for discrimination.

"A job advertisement saying that `smokers need not apply' would not seem to fall under any of the prohibited grounds (under EU legislation)," Vladimir Spidla, the commissioner for employment and equal opportunities, wrote to Stihler, who showed the letter to the press.

This would have pleased the employer who placed the ad, call-centre director Philip Tobin, who reportedly told Irish radio in May, "If these people (meaning smokers) can ignore so many warnings and all that evidence then they haven't got the level of intelligence that I am looking for. Smokers are idiots."

In other words, if you're addicted to nicotine, a substance that studies have repeatedly shown to be more difficult to withdraw from than heroin, you're too dumb to answer the phone.

Joni Mitchell need not apply. Kurt Vonnegut doesn't have the brains to say, "How may I help you?" Peter Jennings, thick as a plank. C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill inferior minds all around.

And we believe this. We've bought into it because health is now the basis of our prejudices. We judge one another's conduct according to how well we maintain ourselves physically.

It isn't confined to smoking. British surgeons have begun to refuse doing certain operations for obese patients. Women who drink more than a glass of wine a day are made to feel they're alcoholics. Mothers who choose not to breast-feed are castigated as if they were amoral.

The objective of life, in this health utopia of ours, is to live it as long as possible, in mechanically perfect condition. Compare that to previous utopian cultures, where the objective of life would have been, variously, to be honourable, or spiritually sublime, or warrior-like or, in the case of Communism, a humble devotee of collective economic well-being: an impeccable worker ant.


Consider, by contrast, how AIDS activists have turned around the stigma of their affliction. How someone contracted HIV doesn't matter.


Every culture with a utopian vision has its officially acknowledged deviants.

The Ontario government's anti-smoking website is addressed http://www.stupid.ca. It's for stupid people. Deviants addicted to nicotine.

The degree to which we have turned an addiction into a moral failing really came home to me last year when Peter Jennings died of lung cancer. On his last ABC news broadcast, when he announced his diagnosis, he explained to his viewers that he had quit smoking 20 years earlier but had fallen off the wagon after 9/11. He apologized. He actually apologized for dying of cancer.

Imagine if Jennings had said on the air: "I've got lung cancer, but I enjoyed every cigarette I ever smoked, and my life has been really full and interesting. Live fast and die at 67."

It would have been viewed as an apostasy.

Consider, by contrast, how AIDS activists have so successfully turned around the stigma of their affliction. How someone gay or straight, male or female, young or old contracted HIV doesn't matter. As The New York Times reported, in a lead-up to the Toronto AIDS conference, "In 1996 in Vancouver, the audience cheered after a grandmother told the conference: `How did I get infected? The answer is very simple: It just doesn't matter.'"

How do smokers, young or old, get addicted to nicotine? A new study out this month by McGill University epidemiologist Jennifer O'Loughlin shows that some people are so susceptible to nicotine that they can begin to crave the substance after one cigarette. One cigarette. One shared needle. One night of unprotected sex. It just doesn't matter.

In the last several years, the U.S. has made available to smokers a huge arsenal of nicotine-replacement therapies, such as the lozenge, a nasal spray, and a new pill called Chantix that blocks nicotine reception in the brain, none of which is available in Canada. The Americans run in-patient rehab programs for nicotine addiction. We Canadians run public-service ads in movie theatres specifically produced to demonstrate that smokers are knuckleheads.

Are we seriously committed to helping people wrest free of nicotine? Or are we writing them off as deviants?

What the EU discrimination ruling about the Irish call centre reveals is that the door is wide open for health discrimination in the upcoming decade. Until we snap out of it and realize that there's Read More .. life than its length, we are in for a whole new wave of prejudice.


Patricia Pearson is a freelance journalist in Toronto.