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Wednesday, June 29, 2005


Put that in your pipe and smoke it

Am I the only Liberal Democrat to feel somewhat queasy about the party's enthusiasm for smoking bans?

I regularly visit smoky pubs and cafes with no ill effects, yet the sharp decline in air quality over the past ten days due to the heatwave has made me ill (hence the lack of postings lately). I'm not the only one to suffer, yet there remains far more political enthusiasm for banning smoking than banning cars.

The party launched its crusade at its 2004 spring conference when, in a fit of lunacy, it passed a motion in favour of banning smoking in public places. Now the Liberal Democrat groups in both the Scottish Parliament and the
Welsh Assembly are pursuing smoking bans with abandon.

I have never been a smoker myself and don't particularly like other people's smoke in confined spaces where there is poor ventilation. Nonetheless, I think the decision whether to smoke is a matter for adults to decide for themselves. There cannot be a sentient adult anywhere in Britain who is not fully aware of the risks of smoking and it is not our business to interfere.

Liberals have no business banning things of which they merely disapprove. It is legitimate to employ the law only where innocent third parties are being injured, which is presumably why the concept of 'passive smoking' has been developed by the anti-smoking lobby. While there is no doubt that active smoking is highly risky, the notion of 'passive' or 'second-hand' smoking is based on dubious epidemiology and there is as yet no definitive evidence that it is a cause of disease.

Even if there were, that would be no cause for an outright ban in public places. Already, 90% of restaurants in London are smoke-free. This is not due to any law or regulation, but simply because the owners have decided it is good for their business. Likewise, many restaurants and pubs voluntarily provide smoking and non-smoking areas.

Conversely, there are many small, one-room, backstreet pubs where the majority of customers are smokers and there is no practical way of creating a separate non-smoking area. Why legislate here when the only practical effect of a smoking ban would be to drive such locals out of business?

As customers, we can choose whether to patronise a restaurant or bar if we dislike its smoking policy. By and large, the problem of smoking in public places and workplaces can be dealt with by a combination of commonsense mutual tolerance and air conditioning. It doesn't need legislation, which, apart from anything else, is difficult and costly to enforce.

Ah, but what about the workers? According to the argument, bar staff and waiters are being 'forced' to breathe in customers' smoke. No they aren't. No-one is forced to work in a pub or restaurant and, if it permits smoking, there are plenty of other bar jobs elsewhere.

I do wish supporters of smoking bans were more honest. This is really about social engineering, not 'passive smoke'. The campaign against smoking reduced the proportion of adults in Britain who smoke down to about 25%, but this figure stubbornly refuses to fall any further. The limits of propaganda have been reached and the anti-smoking lobby knows that outright prohibition would backfire. The function of smoking bans is therefore to retain the technicality of smoking as a legal activity while making it functionally impossible. The target remains smokers, not the rest of us.

The whole absurdity of the anti-smoking crusade was brought home in the
Doctor's notes column by Margaret McCartney in last Tuesday's Guardian G2 section. The column was subtitled,

"If a patient doesn't ask, then it is not a GP's job to offer them advice on how to lose weight"
The point against "nagging professionally" was well made, but then McCartney contradicted herself by proceeding to justify precisely such nagging about smoking. She produced the fallacious argument that, because smoking is more prevalent among poorer people, no-one who smoked was truly exercising freedom of choice, and added the bizarre claim that,

"...if you really wanted to make the opportunity to smoke equal, then you would have to start shoving free cigarettes through nice middle-class letterboxes."
I am still trying to work out the absurd logic that, if more working class people smoke, that is added reason to ban smoking in restaurants and pubs.

I fear that public healthism is getting completely out of hand. The campaign to improve public health began in the nineteenth century. Then, the objective was to eradicate disease by providing clean water and sanitation, and through mass vaccination campaigns.

These public health goals were largely accomplished by about 1970, but the momentum didn't stop. Campaigners turned their attention to people's own behaviour, and so we have seen increasing concern about voluntary activities such as smoking, drinking and eating.

I saw on the TV the other week one local council running counselling sessions on eating habits for whole families. This had a horrible whiff of Maoist re-education classes about it.

This increasing political concern with our private lives has also been fuelled by increasing public neurosis about 'risk'. All manner of activities, such as mobile phones and MMR jabs, have been deemed risky without there being a shred of scientific evidence to support such claims.

This combination of political interference and mass hysteria is having a catastrophic effect on health policy. Frank Furedi wrote an excellent article in
Spiked (23 March), in which he observed that illness rather than wellness is now regarded as a normal state, that more and more of our life experiences are being medicalised, and that we are encouraged to make sense of our lives in terms of 'health'.

The result is that no government, no matter what policies it pursues or how much money it spends, can ever overcome the crisis of healthcare. As long as our culture normalises illness and encourages endless introspection about our state of health, the public demand for healthcare can never be satisfied.

The political busy-bodying about our health is also a manifestation of a broader political problem. Globalisation has removed many powers from politicians and left them feeling impotent. The public sphere once included, for example, manufacturing industry and the government took a strategic view about it. Nowadays, the public sphere has retreated from this area, so that Rover can collapse and the government can escape without so much as a crease in its trousers.

To compensate, politicians are advancing the public sphere into areas that were, until recently, considered a private matter for individuals. As a result, we get politicians deciding what we should be eating. We get previously legal if eccentric behaviour defined as 'anti-social'. And we get the intrusiveness of the government's ID card proposals.

Liberal Democrats ought to be questioning this trend instead of leaping on the bandwagon. We should be suspicious of any attempt to extend bureaucratic supervision of people's lives and instead be biased towards independence and empowerment.

The 'ban it' brigade in our party must learn to live and let live. They must stop trying to intrude in private matters and stop trying to force lifestyle changes on people who don't want them.

People are not stupid. They know about the risks of smoking, drinking and eating. If they want to smoke 40 a day or eat cream cakes, that's their business. Now will you please get off our backs?

The Committee that looked at a smoking ban in Wales did acknowledge that one of the objectives of such a ban would be to provide greater opportunity for people to give up smoking and indeed, that has been one of the impacts of the ban in Ireland.

It is not easy to dismiss the issue of health and safety at work. Bar and restaurant jobs may be easy to get in some parts of the Country but they are not elsewhere. People's right to smoke is an absolute but so should the right of people not to have their health damaged by the habit of others, especially when they have no choice but to suffer it.
Slavoj Zizek once said in an interview (with either Spiked or Bad Subjects, I think) that the drive to ban smoking was a symptom of modern (i.e. post-Oedipal) narcissism. And, indeed, I have noticed that people who aggressively defend the idea of the ban are often quite narcissistic individuals.

On the other hand, Zizek should know that the whole point of living in a post-Oedipal society is that a "return" to Oedipal authority (which would effectively eliminate problems such as "compensation culture") is impossible. So it's not just a case of pointing out that actually, in abstract psychoanalytical terms, we should be more prepared to gain a few scrapes in life.

I mean, the BBC are not even allowed to make a new series of "It's A Knock-Out" in case they get sued by the contestants...
I'm with you on this one, Simon. Surely a Liberal society is one that defends everyones rights. Segregation of smoking and non-smoking areas is liberal - protecting everyone's rights and freedoms. Outright bans are clearly illiberal and we should have no truck with them
Great post, Simon. As for people working in bars- are we banning cars to satisfy those people who do roadworks in the day? What about people who work in the tube with the poor air quality there? Some jobs carry a irritant premium, but I would rather guess that some things intrinsic to the bar would demand putting up with them.
There is, though, it seems to me, a case for some regulation to do with adequate ventilation, but an outright ban seems nannystatist and illiberal.
I agree with you on the comparison between car emissions and smoking. I gave up smoking 5 years ago but before then I lost count of the number of people with gas guzzling BMWs or similar who criticised my smoking. I don't drive, but like you I react badly to car fumes in hot weather.
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