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Ian O'Doherty

New smoking ban in mental health units is just cruel

Ashes to ashes: Taking away what may well be mental health patients' last bit of pleasure is an extraordinary act of ideological bullying
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Well, they're at it again. Chipping away, sneering, demeaning and wallowing in their own misplaced sense of moral superiority, the anti-smoking zealots are once more on the march.

Some of the latest suggestions are just daft and unenforceable, and one is actually cruel.

So, first the cruel.

The HSE is introducing a smoking ban in Ireland's mental health units, and it is already being rolled out in three facilities in Cork.

This follows the blanket bans on smoking on the grounds of Irish hospitals and it is one of those perfect examples of the powers-that-be allowing their ideology to overcome their compassion and common sense.

As John Mallon, the chairman of smokers' rights group, Forest Ireland, pointed out in response: "If someone is in a mental health unit, it's because they're facing a number of issues in their lives. Why add to the burden by banning something they enjoy and may offer comfort at a difficult or stressful time?

"It also discriminates against those who are less mobile or can't go off site on their own. The policy may be well-meaning but it's no way to treat people who are already in a vulnerable state."

If there is one thing in that statement which I would take issue with, it is Mallon's overly optimistic belief that the new policy is "well-meaning".

That's because anyone who has spent any time in an Irish hospital over the last few years will have seen the smoking ban enforced in draconian and nasty ways which are simply punitive and judgmental.

Even those who have been fortunate enough to stay away from hospitals in that time can see the results of such bans.

Drive by the Mater on any rainy day, for instance, and you will see patients huddled together in their dressing gowns, exposed to the elements as they take a break from the drudgery of hospital life. This, apparently, is healthier than allowing the patients an enclosed area - which they used to have - where they could smoke without bothering anyone else and, perhaps, not get soaked to the bone at the same time.

People smoke in hospitals for a variety of reasons, and one which is never considered by the authorities is that it is actually good for their head.

Certainly, when my father spent a few years in and out of James's hospital with the terminal, non-smoking related disease which would ultimately kill him, he measured the days by increments of when he'd go out for a smoke. It broke the endless monotony of living on a ward and, like many other long-term patients, he was determined to not become a 'lifer', one of those lost, institutionalised souls who simply lie in bed all day staring at the ceiling.

Getting up and going out for a break is often the only relief a patient gets.

To enforce such a rule on people who are already in so much turmoil that they are in a residential mental unit just seems needlessly, spitefully cruel. Life has already proved intolerable for many of these patients, and taking away what may well be their last bit of pleasure and relief is an extraordinary act of ideological bullying.

But then, smokers are well used to this sort of ideological bullying.

It's impossible to have a debate about this issue with the professional non-smokers because they quickly resort to the usual epithets - 'vile', 'disgusting', etc - which only proves the strength of their contempt for smokers, not the strength of their argument. Now, with the latest plans to ban smoking in al fresco dining areas coming down the pipe, Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway wants to further extend such prohibition.

Indeed, he wants to start by banning smoking at bus stops, then extend it to within 100 feet of schools, youth clubs and community centres.

But why stop there?

Oh wait - he doesn't plan to stop there. In fact, he is quite proud to admit that: "When I get the brief to the legal people, I expect the list to be significantly extended - it is growing all the time."

Even better, he then boasted that: "I expect to have the Bill ready to go before the House after Easter. It is my Lenten penance."

Now, I'll happily admit that I'm no theologian. But I always thought a Lenten penance was a sacrifice you made to deprive yourself of something you like, not a sacrifice you expect others to make to deprive them of something they like?

But logic goes out the window whenever zealotry is involved, and the fact that there is no political cost to having a pop at smokers means it has become open season for any politician looking for a few quick headlines and a boost to their profile.

For a Catholic country, we would have made great Puritans. There seems to a growing belief that if you don't like something, then it is reasonable to expect it to be banned.

But it's not reasonable. It's invasive and intrusive and, ultimately, it's none of your business.

It makes perfect sense to not smoke indoors in a restaurant. Even before the smoking ban was brought in and we could smoke in restaurants, I hated people doing it and I would go outside for a postprandial fag. So did plenty of smokers. You shouldn't need a law to tell you right from wrong, and lighting up while someone is still eating is just rude.

But outdoors? The outdoors already have a great air conditioning and filtration system.

It's called the wind.

Indo Review

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Ashes to ashes: Taking away what may well be mental health patients' last bit of pleasure is an extraordinary act of ideological bullying