Radio: Passive smoking? Being active's more fun

EVER SINCE Hillary Clinton declared the White House a smoke-free zone, no vice can touch smoking - particularly, come to think of it, in the White House. Tobacco is the last great occasion of sin. But fear not you beleaguered addicts, nipping outside for a quick gasp before the boss comes back, it won't go away. One Lawrence Spooner gave up: "I have no shame (as I had had before)" he boasted, "because my neighbours saw me out of door, defiling of the wholesome precious air with foreign fumes ..." And that was in 1703. It's not easy to stub it out.

In Fag End (R2), the excellent Miles Kington presented an entertaining history of the weed. The first victim of the anti-smoking police was Roderigo de Jerez (who was probably a sherry drinker too). He was imprisoned by the Inquisition when he demonstrated the art of lighting a cigar, learnt in Cuba in 1492: they thought he was a fire-breathing devil. Then along came the fragrant Frenchman, Jean Nico, and the languorous revelry began.

The listener's faith in this narrative flickered on, hearing that in North America long ago a vast communal cigar was smoked, three to four feet long and six inches in diameter. It rested on wooden supports and everyone joined in. But how? The most determined tycoon would have trouble sucking a bazooka, even if he didn't inhale. Worse was to come. Tobacco, we heard, was considered beneficial: it was used in pipes, for chewing, in cigars, as snuff and - oh lord - as an enema. Did they set fire to it? We never discovered.

One thing's certain: banning makes it more attractive. Although Queen Victoria was spotted personally attempting to smoke the midges out of Scotland, she forbade her children to indulge. When his mother eventually passed to her reward, the Prince of Wales, after decades of exhaling up palace chimneys, became history's most enthusiastic smoker. His rival for the honour was Oscar Wilde, whose cigarette was "my 11th finger".

Blokeish R2 is probably the least politically-correct station broadcasting (always of course excepting Talk Radio) yet even they couldn't go on like this forever. The worm turned and health warnings began - but they were half-hearted. Even the zealous Alexander Walker had to laugh: for years, his answerphone message ended (infuriatingly) with the words "Remember, smoking is the slow way to suicide" - until a Hollywood producer left the terse message "Yeah, and film-making is the quick way."

More serious was R2's current Social Action Project called Cancer and You, which concentrated on stomach and bowel cancer. For a couple of days, Gaby Roslin interrupted programmes with snippets of advice and personal histories, designed to prompt listeners to seek help early. It was cleverly done, stressing the value of an optimistic approach and breezily discussing symptoms. Most of these featured had been successfully treated: only Bobby Moore's widow struck a sad note. Poor woman, she and her husband had been unable to persuade their doctor that there was anything wrong until it was too late.

On Wednesday night, it was time for another scary disease, Hepatitis C (R4). This programme took an entirely different approach, beginning with an absolutely terrifying description of a liver biopsy, which felt "like being stabbed by Jack the Ripper". A specialist lingered over the gruesome progress of the widespread killer virus and we were told we could contract it via acupuncture, electrolysis, body-piercing, shooting up, you name it. Apparently it might live outside the body, in dried blood, for months.

There were several disquieting things about all this. If it is indeed so rampant and easily transmitted, was it fair to castigate a dental hygienist reluctant to treat one infected patient? Or his girlfriend, worried about having sex with him? Or the blood-transfusion service for asking this girl not to give blood for a bit? Is it useful to be so portentous and doomy and then, only at the very end, to interview someone who seems to have conquered it simply by diet, reflexology and shiatsu? There was a useful, informative programme in there, but it was hidden, shuddering among the outrage and the horror.

While we're on physical nastiness, have you been listening to The Vale (R4)? It's caught me unawares once or twice this week. You're retrieving your dropped jaw after the cosy smugness of the world's most Oedipal series, Mothers and Sons (R4), and this seriously caring voice says "I'm just stimulating her to go toilet," or "If it's green poo we have a real problem." They do it on purpose to make you spill your coffee.

The objects of this woman's attention were grey squirrels and hedgehogs respectively. She runs a wildlife sanctuary where any little creatures are welcome - even the mouse that someone's cat brought in. Well, OK, but grey squirrels? The scavenging rodents are shot on sight around here. As for the giant, fanged, venomous, hairy crab-spider who emigrated from Vietnam in a terracotta pot - well, I wasn't convinced that he was passive: repatriation's too good for this sort. And precisely how do they feed those of their furry friends who prefer their food alive? Are their birds of prey vegetarian?

There was no comfort to be had from Rick Stein, reading Cod - a Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (R4) like a very good chef, if the word "deadpan" belongs in such a context. His exhortation to eat cod- bones stewed in sour milk made me (very nearly) reach for a fag.