The Smoking Interest Group (SIG), a collaboration between Durham University’s CMH and Affiliates in the Medical Anthropology Research Group, had its first public outing at a one day symposium supported by the Wolfson Research Institute and held at the Dowrick Suite at Trevelyan College on 21st September. Around 40 invited national and international scholars and researchers with interests in tobacco studies joined us for an interdisciplinary dialogue on the potential role of medical humanities in smoking research. Papers were presented by members of SIG and followed by responses by discussants who opened out themes for round table discussion at the end of each session. The presentations aimed to address issues that are often by passed in smoking research, which is directed largely at smoking cessation. Frances Thirlway discussed ‘The smoker in time and space’; Susana Carro-Ripalda dissected the idea of being a smoker in ‘Smoking becomings’; Sue Lewis presented her research with young teenagers in ‘The young smokers’s tale’; Viki Wood discussed the paradox of ‘Smoking spaces in therapeutic places’: smoking areas in a psychiatric hospital; Andrew Russell reminded us of the economics of smoking in ‘Taking the tobacco industry seriously; and Jane Macnaughton located the discussions within medical humanities in ‘Situating SIG: medical humanities and smoking research’. Discussants included central figures in tobacco control regionally – Professor Eugene Milne, Deputy Director of Public Health (North East England) and Ailsa Rutter, Director of Fresh Smoke Free North East – as well as academics from the Universities of Edinburgh (Professor Jamie Pearce and Dr Deborah Ritchie) and Liverpool (Dr Jude Robinson). The round up session was expertly led by Professor Jeannie Shoveller from the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
We were privileged to be able to show a work by the artist and 2009 Northern Art Prize winner, Pavel Büchler, entitled, All but one cigarette breaks. The work documents every smoking break Büchler has taken while installing exhibitions since 2007, and depicts the places, people and institutions he has encountered. This work superbly complemented the themes of the symposium and attracted spirited attention on the day.
Discussion in the round table sessions was vigorous and highlighted the challenges presented by different perspectives on the problem of smoking. Public health has its sights on the need for effective interventions to support cessation but some researchers in the field sense that for some communities and individuals other life problems are more pressing before they can contemplate dealing with smoking, and indeed that smoking helps support them through their current crises. One outcome of the day was that the approach suggested by SIG – that of critiquing public health from a perspective of a more nuanced, humanities-led understanding of the human – might well help orientate interventions in a more effective way. As a start, SIG plans to discuss with Prof. Milne what kind of research might help us to understand better the smoking lives of pregnant women, a particular problem currently in the North East of England.