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If you're a smoker who walks down the street with a cigarette, you're being ableist

Why should it be the labour of the non-smoker to police their own behaviour because of secondhand smoke? 

Amrou Al-Kadhi
Sunday 01 July 2018 14:40 BST
In 90 seconds: A history of smoking laws

As I was making my way to a friend’s birthday in Deptford last week, a pedestrian with a cigarette unknowingly blew smoke into my face as they walked in front of me. I’ve suffered with asthma on and off throughout my life, so my lungs immediately tightened, and my breathing became shallow. By the time I got to my friend’s house for dinner, I was wheezing.

Frustratingly, I had left my blue salbutamol inhaler at home – it was a sunny day and I was travelling light – so had to go home much earlier than I wanted to. In truth, whenever the blowback of a cigarette hits my face, I can expect to wheeze and struggle for the rest of the day.

This is the sad reality for many of us asthma sufferers. An attack can be triggered by the slightest stimulus, so we stay wedded to our inhalers because of our condition. And the omnipresence of secondhand smoke has made walking on the street an even more difficult task. When smokers walk and blindly exhale around and behind them, a pavement becomes a minefield of potential asthmatic flareups.

Asthma isn’t a registered disability, but it is a prominent and often severe health condition – and it’s pretty much socially invisible. The statistics are worrying – 5.4 million people in the UK suffer with asthma (that’s one in 11), and in 2016, 1,410 people died from it, with the NHS spending around £1bn a year on caring for people with asthma.

Remember all of this in the context of London being one of the most polluted cities in Europe; the city’s pollution leads to 9,500 early deaths a year, with one in four children breathing in air that breaches the EU’s legal limits. Not to mention that our pollution leads to £54bn of losses to the UK economy each year.

Anti-smoking advert shows dangerous affects of cigarettes on your body

Within this already grim smog, asthma sufferers have to dodge the blowback of cigarette smokers. It is my personal belief that smoking while walking on the street should be regulated, and that there should be designated smoking areas in outdoor public spaces, or at least a push to make smoking a stationary activity when done outside. It may sound a bit extreme, and will no doubt make me wildly unpopular – as well as seeming deeply unfun – but it feels to me a fair policy befitting a city that prides itself on safety and tolerance for everyone.

Just as we would expect a person to give up their seat on the tube to someone who might need it more, so too should a smoker respect that the person they are walking by might have an invisible respiratory condition. Look, I understand that smoking is an enjoyable activity for many – in fact, I smoked whilst I was a university student and it was my favourite thing; and I know it can be extremely difficult to quit, but secondhand smoke really can hamper the everyday quality of life for people who are struggling to breathe as it is.

I spoke to other asthma sufferers who are affected by secondhand smoke on the street. Ozy Ismail, 32, explained to me: “If someone is smoking and walking in front of me, I make the effort to move to the other side of the road or take another route occasionally. Ideally, I’d prefer them to light up when they reach a designated smoking area.”

Similarly, Nainita Desai, a film composer, spoke of the need to constantly be wary of smoke: “Secondhand smoke aggravates my asthma, especially when the wind carries it straight into my face from passersby … I often have to slow down till they have gone far enough ahead of me to avoid the smoke.”

Why should it be the labour of the non-smoker to police their own behaviour because of secondhand smoke? Especially if that person is already struggling with a respiratory condition? It should be the labour of the person whose choice it is to smoke to manage their behaviour, so to be accommodating of the many other bodies who want to enjoy public space.

I urge all those who smoke to try as hard as possible to watch where they are exhaling, especially when walking on the street. There are millions of us who just can’t handle the fumes, and silently, we’re finding it difficult to breathe.

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