A couple of weeks ago I received an email that I wanted to publish verbatim but my correspondent was worried that it might "rip my family apart if they read it". I have edited it slightly to remove one or two tell-tale details but it is fundamentally the same. Sadly, I suspect that June (not her real name) is not alone and the scenario she describes will be familiar to others of a similar age. Anyway, this is her story:
I'm a 57-year old-woman who is not knowingly suffering from any ‘smoking related’ illnesses. I have smoked cigarettes since my teens and have raised a son and a daughter. They are both healthy. Neither of them became smokers. My husband (also a non-smoker) has no illnesses related to ‘passive smoking’. He is in fact extraordinarily athletic.
I was a ‘stay at home mum’. Luckily my husband could support us and I could devote my time to him, raising the children and being a near perfect housewife. When my youngest went to university I wanted to get back into the workplace but found that nobody wanted to employ a fiftysomething woman so I had unwittingly given up my career to raise my children.
I thought I had raised my children to be tolerant. One of the first lessons I taught them was ‘Everybody’s different and we all like different things’. Can you imagine my distress when my daughter first insisted that I smoke outside her flat? But I accepted it. I never smoke in her flat, nor in any property belonging to a non-smoker as I understand that they may find it distasteful and they have the absolute right in their own property to insist on fresh air. I’m OK with that.
This year, for the first time in years, my daughter, her husband (an ex-smoker) and their young son will be joining us for Christmas. I’d stopped inviting her (as refusals do hurt a bit) but this year she asked to come.
I’d decided not to smoke in the same room as my grandchild. Three days ago my daughter rang me. She wanted a frank discussion about my smoking. Would I be smoking outdoors? She didn’t want her son in a house where someone had been smoking. I told her that in my own house, on Christmas Day, when I had cooked for eight, I wouldn’t be standing outside in the middle of winter to smoke.
I agreed reluctantly to smoke in an upstairs room, with the door shut. I actually don’t know how I’m going to pull this off (with my sense of outrage running high) and still be a welcoming hostess to our guests.
So this is what years of propaganda about the perceived threat of passive smoking has done to ordinary families. Look, I can understand why some people may have concerns about long-term exposure over many years to a heavy smoker in a confined space (though how many people genuinely experience that is open to doubt), but short-term exposure is a different matter entirely (unless you are a serious asthmatic) - and I certainly don't buy the argument about the dangers of "thirdhand [sic] smoke".
I do believe that people should err on the side of caution (or courtesy, as my friend Rose puts it) where small children are concerned, but I am not going to condemn anyone for smoking in their own home and as a parent myself it would not stop me visiting anyone, let alone a close relative, with my own children.
As it happens, my mother-in-law gave up her 40-a-day habit before my children were born but if she hadn't quit I certainly wouldn't have boycotted her house. Nor would I have dreamt of having a "frank discussion" with her about her habit. And as for insisting that she could only smoke in one room, upstairs, with the door shut, what a blooming cheek!
But what really appalls me is that June is fearful that if she shares her experience with you, dear reader, and her children see it, it could "rip my family apart". What type of society is that?
June wants us to do everything we can to combat the propaganda on passive smoking. We're doing our best but my fear is that the horse has already bolted and it will be easier to counteract the denormalisation of tobacco than reverse the often irrational fear of secondhand smoke.
As far as families go, what is needed is a sense of proportion from parents of young children and some common sense (and courtesy) from everyone else, including smokers. Is that too much to ask?
PS. I will ask June to report back after Christmas ...