Liam Farrell: When smoking was not the worst of it

Smoking is bad for you; in fact, no equivocation here, it's really bad, okay.

But even so, I thought last month's leader in The Observer was bit extreme: 'Top GP considers smoking in cars to be a form of child abuse.' Exactly what the qualifications are for becoming a 'top' GP are not clear, GPs being an anarchic, maverick crew; we touch the forelock to no man, we suck up to no woman - unless they are good-looking.

But I must admit, with a modicum of embarrassment, that I have myself been described as a 'top' GP, and therefore I can only surmise that it reflects one's skill at foreplay. And it carries it's own responsibilities; we are required to act as role-models for ordinary GPs and ordinary humans; we sparkle upon the TV screens and glitter across the South Seas, noblesse oblige and all that.

We are opinion-formers, and when we say that smoking is a bad thing the tobacco companies shake in their shoes, because the message is getting through.

During The Great Famine of the 1840s, the population of Ireland was halved from its peak of eight million to four million. It was all the fault of the English, of course, but, hey, it's a long time ago, and I've kinda gotten over it by now.

Two million died, and two million emigrated, mainly to America, and many of those who sailed to America did so on what became known as coffin ships. The coffin ships were crowded and disease-ridden and the owners provided as little food and water and living space as was legally possible; mortality rates of 30 per cent were common.

I was at a lecture recently on coffin ships - we Irish like to nurse our grievances closely - where the lecturer was expounding in graphic detail on the horrors of the journey. Even worse, he said, in hushed and outraged tones, the passengers were allowed to smoke.

The audience gasped in horror. Comparing smoking to starving to death and being forced to drink your own urine was a bit excessive, I thought, so I attempted to lighten the atmosphere with the gift of humour.

'That's why they were called coffin ships, you know,' I interjected from the body of the hall, 'because the passengers were always coffin'.'

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