Fuming mad in New York

Some thoughts on smoking as the outdoor ban is extended in New York to beaches and parks.

One evening in November 1492, as the wintry chill descended on a stretch of North American coastline, Christopher Columbus welcomed back two exhausted crewmen aboard his ship, the Santa Maria. Luis de Torres and Rodrigo de Jerrez had been sent ahead months earlier on a fool's errand: to search for China in the deep forests of Cuba. On their journeys, the Spanish scouts had witnessed natives "drinking" the smoke emanating from the end of "a musket formed of paper". De Jerrez had been curious enough to partake in this obscure ritual and, in doing so, became the first European to light up, cough and insist to sceptical friends that it was a pleasurable experience, honest. When he returned to his coastal home town of Ayamonte, he was swiftly sent to jail by the Spanish Inquisition; witnesses were so alarmed by the satanic clouds billowing from the corners of his mouth that a seven-year sentence was deemed necessary.

So began the white western world's troubled relationship with the nicotiana tabacum, bane of health-care professionals and tutting parents who insist upon sunning their children in the beer garden of the Prince George on Saturday afternoons (despite knowing that it is commonly used as a smoking area, as the stacked ashtrays suggest). In the Beatles song "I'm So Tired", John Lennon places the blame for cigarette addiction on Queen Elizabeth's goombah, Sir Walter Raleigh, who is dismissed as a "stupid get". It is, however, a curse that has deeper roots in America than in Britain.

Europeans may have "discovered" (or claimed) it when they "discovered" (or wreaked genocidal havoc on) the New World but the practice can be traced back as far as 5000BC, when it was used as part of ritual practices by ancient civilisations across North and South America. The plant has existed in its present form for millions of years: the oldest fossilised specimen, which dates back to the Pleistocene era, was unearthed in the Maranon river basin in north-eastern Peru last year.

The arguments against the evil habit are powerful and largely correct -- in November, a World Health Organisation study found that 600,000 deaths are caused each year by passive smoking, of which 167,000 are children under the age of 15. Smoking reduces your life expectancy by eight to ten years; each puff of smoke contains 60 substances known to cause cancer. More than five million people die every year from smoking-related illnesses, which, in Britain alone, cost £5bn in public spending -- about 6 per cent of the total NHS budget.

This week, councillors in New York State approved an extension of its public-smoking restrictions, prohibiting the yellow of tooth from puffing away on beaches, in parks and even in Times Square. In March 2003, the state introduced its controversial ban in the city's 20,000 bars, clubs and and restaurants, overcoming resistance from anxious bar owners and the 1.3 million local smokers for whom they catered. Yet this latest extension of the law, passed by 36 votes to 12, seems to me to be an excessive move that will only encourage the anti-ban lobby.

According to the BBC, the new rules make it "an offence to smoke in any of the city's 1,700 parks and along 14 miles of coastline". The passive-smoking argument wielded so convincingly in 2003 cannot be applied to outdoor spaces; this gives the impression that the extension is driven by cosmetic, rather than health, concerns. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, after the vote, "This summer, New Yorkers who go to our parks and beaches for some fresh air and fun will be able to breathe even cleaner air and sit on a beach not littered with cigarette butts." If litter is the problem, surely strengthening litter laws should be enough? Smokers have rights and should be allowed to damage themselves if they want to: the state shouldn't be given more powers over people engaging in legal activities that harm no one but themselves.

The western history of ciggies started with de Jerrez's persecution. In this light, perhaps this invasive development isn't so surprising. Now, off for a smoke...


PS. Apologies for the Daily Mail-esque headline.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood