Can't afford to smoke, can't bear not to: Parents on income support like Ilene pay the Government 536m pounds a year in tobacco tax. Nicholas Roe finds out why

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ilene Robinson is sitting in her Brighton council house, puffing on her third cigarette of the morning. She takes a drag, breathes out with a little toss of her head, and coughs. Then she discloses how much a week she spends on fags.

Bear in mind that 32-year- old Ilene is divorced, on benefit, a single mother and hasn't worked since losing her sales assistant job 18 months ago. She admits she finds life a struggle. 'Twenty per cent of my income,' she says at last.

It is difficult not to react. Smart folk would say that people like Ilene are daft. Of all the people who can't afford a nasty, expensive habit such as smoking, she must surely come top. What about her kid? What about the food bill?

So what's the worst thing about smoking, Ilene? 'The cost. And probably the smell.'

And the best thing? 'Stress relief. And relaxing.' Stress? The details come out in bits.

In the last eight years, Ilene has lost her husband to divorce, her old flat to a fire, her job to an accident, her 10-year- old son - who has severe behavioural problems - to a residential home (last year). Up until then, Steven was a bit of a handful, she adds. Hyperactive. He was the reason she took up smoking again after one major attempt to stop. She doesn't want to talk about it, just says, 'Myself and a friend both decided this is it, we're going to save ourselves money, and we both packed it up. For a whole month. It was a nightmare, but we were doing extremely well. Then something happened in my life, it was very personal, to do with my son. I went straight round to the shop and bought a packet of cigarettes and we smoked for hours . . .'

Time and again Steven emerges as the main source of pressure in Ilene's life but she doesn't express it like that. In fact she says she missed him like mad when he went away last year. She threw herself into voluntary work. For six months, you could barely find her indoors.

For those about to climb on to a high horse, here come a couple of unsettling truths. The first is that a report published earlier this month by the Policy Studies Institute points out that people like Ilene make up a very large group. . Six out of ten single parents on benefit (mostly women) are smokers, which is twice the national


Also, a conference being held in London today - Women and Tobacco, organised by the Women's National Commission - will hear of the huge difference between the ability of well-off people to give up cigarettes, and poorer people who can't afford to smoke but can't bear not to.

The message from Professor Hilary Graham, head of Warwick University's applied social studies department, is simple: 'In the Fifties,' she explains, '40 per cent of women in every social class were smokers. Now women in the lowest social groups are basically unchanged at 35 per cent, but women in the top group are down to 13 per cent.'

Linking this to the stresses of motherhood on slim state benefits, Professor Graham adds, 'It forces us to look at what it is about a woman and class that makes it easier to survive this subordinate position with a cigarette.'

Back to Ilene, sitting in her neat front room with posters on the walls, a clock with a dud battery, a big telly. She exists on pounds 57.35p a week benefit plus child allowance of pounds 64 a month. Her council house rent is paid for her so that means a total of pounds 73.35p a week to spend on everything else. She runs a 1983 Toyota, which her brother helped her buy.

Now comes the silly bit. Ilene smokes 150 cigarettes a week, roughly pounds 15 in cash. Or 20.44 per cent of her income if you want to look at it that way, which she doesn't particularly.

Not that she ducks questions but her answers can be pat. For instance: doesn't she worry about joining the estimated 110,000 who die each year in the UK from smoking?

'I could walk out in the road and get run over by a bus just as easily,' she says. Then adds, 'People said to me on national No Smoking Day 'You're letting the country down.' I said, 'I'm keeping people employed. I am giving the Government lots of dosh.' '

Which is true. The PSI report calculates that parents on income support pay a total of pounds 530m a year in tobacco tax - that's nearly 17 per cent of the income support paid to parents, and 7 per cent of revenue raised from tobacco.

Doesn't she feel selfish, spending scarce resources on herself which could be spent on Steven? 'No, because if it was a toss-up between a packet of cigarettes or my son then my son would win. But I don't think I do let him go without.'

In fact, the PSI points out that children of poor families with smokers are three times more likely to be going without essential items than the children of poor families where there are no smokers. Ilene says that if she had a lump sum - say pounds 1,000 - she might put it to good use, 'but pounds 2.50 goes nowhere'. She agrees, though, when we total it up, that she has probably spent pounds 15,000 on cigarettes in her lifetime.

Ask her about pleasures other than smoking and Ilene says: 'I play for a darts team and every Thursday I go to the local pub. We pay money into a kitty and every so often we all go out for a meal. A couple of times a year with the darts team and, sometimes, if it's someone's birthday, we all go out.' Then she smiles and adds, 'Only three from the team are still married, the rest are separated with children. All of them smoke.'

Ilene is lucky in some ways. Her parents - both smokers - live in Cornwall and she pops down there when things get tough, although the last non-family holiday she had was 15 years ago.

She has been a smoker since she was 14 and with each Budget has told herself that she will give up when cigarettes cost, say, pounds 1 a pack, then pounds 1.50, then pounds 2.

Professor Graham refers to people such as Ilene as being in a 'crucible of disadvantage, when you are caring for children on less than you need'.

'When times are hard, better-off people have a range of things they can do, but these choices are closed off when you are on benefit. It is something about the accessibility of cigarettes. You need to get through the next five minutes.'

Ilene says, 'I haven't got anything else. I don't go clubbing or anything like that, so this is one thing I enjoy doing. Everyone should have something they enjoy.'

(Photograph omitted)