Smoke gets in your eyes, but good health is gaining

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 04, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The British are usually receptive to styles in film, fashion and art and to social trends that make their way across from the United States. But they are tenaciously resistant to American food and health fads. For the most part.

For instance, one could easily get the impression that cholesterol has yet to be found in British veins and arteries. It is rarely described as a threat. Foods that might be without it are scrupulously avoided. Sandwiches in pubs and restaurants are spread with plenty of butter. French fries are preferred cooked in lard.

Usually the only stories about cholesterol that make the newspapers are those that debunk its danger -- stories about studies in remote Swedish clinics that demonstrate the negative effects of having too little cholesterol, studies that show men with low levels of blood cholesterol are prone to suicide, violence and psychotic behavior, even rudeness.

Then there is smoking. So far, the disdain for smokers in the United States does not adhere to smokers in Britain. And though the amount of smoking has diminished in Britain, a large number of Britons continue to consume tobacco.

Most smoking is still of the guiltless sort, not carried on furtively as in the United States, by ostracized employees standing outside buildings, without ashtrays, without dignity.

Cigars are popular and pipes almost sacred -- even though the famous tobacconist, Dunhill, has lately de-emphasized pipes and lighters, for which it became famous, in favor of leather goods and clothing.

The outdoor advertising for tobacco is very creative, with the cigarette brand names almost never displayed. Hardly anyone reads the huge health warnings that such billboard ads are required to display. It may follow as a matter of course that there are far fewer anti-smoking crusaders in Britain, though their numbers are growing. The anti-smokers are frequently razzed in the media, subjected to ridicule, denigrated as being without wit, humor or tolerance, described as obese or otherwise unattractive. The media, source of most of the invective, are said to be a veritable sump of die-hard smokers, and it may be true.

The Spectator magazine, for instance, runs a comic strip called "The Outlaw," about a poor soul named Michael Common always on the run from the Health Police, who want to bust him for smoking and drinking.

But this kind of resistance through ridicule may not last. The Health Police will probably win in the end, especially now that the issue of passive smoking has seized the nation's imagination, thanks to Virginia Bland.

Ms. Bland has become like Joan of Arc to passive smokers, long dismissed as cranks who exaggerate their afflictions. She is an employee of the Stockport Council, and recently she won a $22,000 out-of-court settlement against her employer.

She said she suffered from chronic bronchitis and lost her singing voice as a consequence of her co-workers' smoking. She was prepared to tell this to a judge when the council caved in and agreed to pay up.

Reportedly the dockets are filling up with similar cases. Employers everywhere are contemplating smoking bans. All across the land nicotine-browned forefingers grope for another fag as if it were the last. As in France, British restaurateurs are feeling pressure from the passive smoking lobby.

(It's been said that in England, unlike France, it's not the smoke in restaurants that causes the discomfort so much as the food.)

A group here called Action on Smoking and Health says 80 percent of the larger British companies already control smoking among employees, which is to say they forbid it entirely or restrict smokers to places like grungy little toilet rooms.

To make it all worse for smokers, the government has come in against them. Health Secretary Brian Mawhinney wants the owners of all enterprises that serve the public to restrict smoking or ban it entirely. Legislation is being considered.

The health department has a goal of reducing tobacco consumption by 40 percent by 2000, through education, punitive laws, and by progressively raising the tax on cigarettes. This latter is thought an appropriate device, since such taxes help support the National Health System, which eventually winds up with many smokers in its care anyway.

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