A while ago the Freedom to Choose blog posted a 'loneliness' trilogy that reported on the experiences of smokers - especially elderly smokers - following the ban in public buildings. As one elderly woman concluded:
"I am now on anti depressants and wish that I had the courage to kill myself and join my dear husband.
Thank you politicians for making my life not worth living after working from age 14 until 68. I am now 74 and have lost my soul and will to live in this lonely place.”
While the ban has made pubs, restaurants and such like more pleasant places for us non-smokers, it has made for a lonely life for many smokers and especially women. So, when the Joseph Rowntree Trust began its examination of loneliness - partly in Denholme, a village up the hill from Cullingworth - I sent them the material from Freedom-to-choose and others about the negative impact of the smoking ban on loneliness and, indeed, on the mental health of elderly smokers.
So what should we do? Going back to few restrictions on smoking wouldn't be acceptable and would represent an imposition on non-smokers - including those who have conditions such as asthma that are exacerbated by passive smoking. But equally we need to allow a space for those who smoke within our public places - treating smokers as lepers is perhaps as damaging to health as the smoking itself. Depression and loneliness are big problems among the elderly contributing significantly to ill-health.
Loneliness is bad for your health. Researchers rate loneliness as a higher risk than lifelong smoking. Researchers also link lack of social interaction with the onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s: an illness which costs us an estimated £20 billion a year and has an even higher human cost. One study reported a doubled risk of Alzheimer’s disease in lonely people compared with those who were not lonely.
It has been shown that loneliness makes it harder to regulate behaviour, rendering people more likely to drink excessively, have unhealthier diets or take less exercise. There is also evidence that loneliness adversely affects the immune and cardio-vascular systems.
So the efforts to reduce smoking - well-meant as they are - contribute to increases in something that is a higher risk - loneliness. We really cannot continue with the current 'denormalisation' approach - quite literally, it is killing people. So what could we do?
- Promote and support the use of e-cigarettes - these are perhaps the most effective harm reduction system for smokers since they mimic the act and deliver only nicotine to the smoker rather than a cocktail of carcinogens from the burning tobacco. And e-cigarettes have no sidestream passive smoking risks - the 'smoke' we see is just water vapour
- Allow premises above a certain size to have a separate, well-ventilated room for use by smokers - by using negative pressure and modern extraction technology (of the kind used to prevent odours and gases escaping from industrial processes) the negative impact for non-smokers can be more-or-less eliminated
- Permit - perhaps on a trial basis - smaller premises to have times when smoking is permitted. This doesn't deal with the lingering smell but it avoids the sidestream/passive smoking risks
I'd welcome other suggestions as it must be within the wit of man to design a society that tolerates smoking (while being clear about its health risks) - the situation at present is both unfair and dangerous.