This hospital smoking ban may be bad for your health

This hospital smoking ban may be bad for your health

Smokers are not without discipline, and we’ve come to know our place in society. That’d be standing outside the office in the pouring rain, huddled over a cigarette like tramps around a fire. But there are some occasions of high stress when it’s absolutely necessary to smoke indoors – yet society won’t let us. An aeroplane during turbulence is one, going up the aisle is another. Oh to relax those wedding day nerves by punctuating the vows with desperate puffing.

And then there’s the wretched job interview, which can be an overlong trial of strength for those who’d love to hide their embarrassment behind a cloud of smoke. Although you could take a risk: nothing says “I’d be fun to have around the workplace” more than casually pulling out a cigarette mid-interview, lighting a match on the desk and blowing smoke rings in the head of corporate’s direction.

But probably the time tobacco is most needed is in hospital, where doctors and nurses have now been told to clamp down on on-site smoking. As policies go, it’s authoritarian and mean. Cigarettes might seem totally out of place in an institution dedicated to healing. And let’s be as plain as the packaging ought to be: smoking kills.

I’m not a serious smoker; I only have one or two a day to escape the office and commune with the homeless. But I know the risks, and while libertarian American conservatives with a ton of shares in Marlboro might dispute the facts, the scientific evidence is conclusive that smoking causes cancer. It’s responsible for around 100,000 deaths a year in Britain alone.

But imagine for a moment that you’ve got a habit you can’t kick. You’re stuck in a hospital bed 24/7 recovering from an operation; visits are rare and you’ve watched as much Loose Women as you can take. You’re lying there, staring at the ceiling – in great pain – and the one thing that might distract you from the misery is a drag on a fag. But nurse says no. Many in that situation choose to find a fire exit and sneak outside, but standing in the freezing cold with a cigarette in one hand and a saline drip in the other is hardly conducive to swift recovery.


There are more serious scenarios under which it’s judicious, if not humane, to turn a blind eye to a quiet smoke. Patients in enormous pain during the last stages of a terminal illness have no reason to worry about their lungs, but plenty of cause to seek relief in nicotine. Smoking is a common pastime among psychiatric patients, who are locked away all day and not allowed outside without a minder – and a ban would add yet more stress to their volatile condition. In a blog for this newspaper, Andrew M Brown writes that eight out of 10 people with schizophrenia smoke. He says: “Probably there are complex neurobiological causes for this, but it is clear that smoking provides relief, consolation and diversion. Go to any psychiatric ward – if they don’t provide a proper smoking room with ashtrays, the flower pots will soon be overflowing with butts.”

The general fight against smoking in public is a noble cause that has probably saved many lives. And most smokers accept that they are a dying breed, that no one else enjoys the smell of tar fumes and that they have to curtail their habit out of common courtesy. But when it comes to banning the practice on hospital property, we are entering the realm of puritanical nastiness. It’s petty and may, ironically, damage some people’s mental health.

As with so many things in life, we have to find a balance between protecting the health of the community and protecting the right of an individual to take risks. If you’re an addict, you’re an addict, and sometimes you just need that sweet tug to get through moments of high stress.


By Tim Stanley

The Telegraph, Monday 2nd November 2013

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