Diarmaid Ferriter: Finian McGrath smokes out the puritans

Must he prostrate himself before those who imply there is an onus on him to kick the habit?

Finian McGrath was perfectly entitled to articulate the plight of Irish smokers, who are, as he points out, a very sizeable minority – roughly 20 per cent of the population. Photograph: Alan Betson

Finian McGrath was perfectly entitled to articulate the plight of Irish smokers, who are, as he points out, a very sizeable minority – roughly 20 per cent of the population. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

I still owe Finian McGrath a cigarette. Years ago, after a political history seminar in the city centre, my fags having been left in a cloakroom, he obliged a fellow addict on the steps outside, decent man that he is.

Smokers are much more likely to be thrown together outside in this day and age, where they bond and chat and share fags and try to forget they are social pariahs. Any talk of rowing back on the workplace ban on smoking is, of course, nonsense and unwise, and well McGrath knows it, but he was perfectly entitled to articulate the plight of Irish smokers. They are, as he points out, a sizeable minority – roughly 20 per cent of the population – and can be made to feel they are loathed.

Many smokers also experience a degree of self-loathing, born of guilt, the health gamble they are involved in, unsuccessful attempts to quit, dirty looks and furtive dashes for a discrete smoking place. Most current or former smokers will identify with the comments McGrath made about the ongoing mental battle; the determination to reduce consumption from 20 to 15, or from 10 to five and then to zero and the usual failure to do that because of the nature of addiction, nicotine being one of the most powerful drugs.

Most annoying was the po-faced moralising that went on after McGrath’s comments in relation to his own smoking, summed up in the arrogant opening line of an article in the Irish Independent: “The new Super Junior Health Minister Finian McGrath has refused to confirm he will give up smoking cigarettes.”

Is McGrath under some kind of obligation to prostrate himself at the feet of the righteous who imply there is an onus on him to give up smoking?

‘Smoke police’

Such intolerance brought to mind the late cardiac surgeon Maurice Neligan, who, after one of his health columns for this newspaper in 2005, was shouted down by many for daring to suggest that “smoke police, drink police and fat police” were intent on “possessing the asylum”.

Whatever about that sound bite, his substantive point was nuanced, balanced and fair: “We all know the problems of excess. We can provide education in these matters, but we must accept also that individuals have free will. Some individuals become addicted to things that are bad for them. As doctors we must treat with compassion, and as best we can. Moderation in all things, including moderation itself, should be the goal. We must live alongside each other and tolerate our respective frailties.”

Puff and bluster

The hostility directed towards Neligan’s balanced and compassionate comments was an indication that the Irish puritans were determined to outdo the American puritans. In 2008, when I was living in the US during the presidential election that saw Barrack Obama elected, Obama’s doctor, David Scheiner, released a one-page statement summarising the “excellent health” of the 46-year-old senator over the previous 21 years.

This bulletin included his blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and then came the juicy bit: smoking! Obama, the statement said, “has quit this practice on several occasions and is currently using Nicorette gum with success”. This generated much discussion in the months that followed: what did “with success” mean, given that, as reported in the New York Times five months later, “Obama has also been bumming the occasional cigarette during the campaign”?

Later that year, when Obama said he had started using the nicotine gum “about nine months ago”, there was more finger wagging: “That is six months longer than the three months recommended on the gum package label.” In the summer of 2011, it looked like the president was still using the gum; a photograph of him in the Oval Office appeared to capture a single, sneaky piece on the desk beside his computer, providing the opportunity for more preaching articles.

Such sermonising has been more than matched here in recent years and those who suggest that civil liberties might be mentioned in the context of smoking are roundly derided. But will the net of intolerance be extended to bring other sinners against clean living to the shore to face clubbing? What about our overweight TDs? Will they be asked to confirm an intention to lose weight? Or our sedentary politicians? Will they be asked to confirm they are aiming to get 10,000 steps of exercise daily?

During the week, the High Court dismissed a bid by a man, allegedly caught relieving himself in bushes by a garda, to have the offence of indecent exposure deemed unconstitutional. I suspect the day will come when the High Court will also dismiss an appeal by a smoker caught sneaking a puff in the bushes after the Irish zealots have been successful in getting smoking in the open air banned.

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