Smokers are the new lepers.

Jamie Douglass

Topics Politics

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As of this week, the UK government has changed gear in its campaign to give us all healthy bodies to go with our minds (whatever state they might be in). The new White Paper on public health not only attacks obesity, binge drinking and sexual practices – as if what we eat, how much we drink, and where and with whom we have sex is any of the government’s business – but is finally addressing the bugbear that is smoking (1).

Apparently, only private clubs that vote to allow smoking and pubs that ‘do not serve prepared food’ would be exempt. There are problems here, of course; ‘prepared food’ is not a clear term. Taken literally, it would mean that my old spit’n’sawdust local, which sold slabs of beef between two doorsteps of bread, would be affected, because Brian spread the marge himself – whereas my new local wouldn’t, because they’ll microwave all three of your courses. But this suggestion is all the more frightening because it is not a line that policy might take – they’re clearly gearing up for a ban, and the details can be thrashed out later. Observe.

Last week the Scottish executive set out its plans to ban smoking in ‘enclosed public places’ by spring 2006 (2). Dismayed at their reputation as the ‘sick man of Europe’ (3), ministers decided that the time had come to protect people from themselves, and clamp down hard on those pernicious polluters who stain their teeth and our consciences with the evil weed. The counterblaste has started.

Of course, less charitable observers might well opine that the poor record of public health in banny Scotland may have something to do with diet – the compulsory deep-frying of everything, for example – or drink and drug abuse, or many things really. The especially cynical might even suggest that Scotland is just following its centuries-old national obsession with copying the Irish, like some irritating younger brother who just won’t play with his own toys. Ireland got a lot of headlines, and a lot of praise from health campaigners, for its ‘courageous’ stance on smoking, and now Holyrood wants in. Given that the last major coverage Holyrood got was for going over budget by a factor of 10 on its parliament building, they clearly want some good headlines for a change.

Scotland’s First Minister, Jack McConnell, has stated that ‘the single biggest contribution devolved government can make is to reduce the toll of preventable death caused by smoking’. His place in tomorrow’s history textbooks is assured, though perhaps only in an appendix.

Defending smoking bans is frighteningly easy: public health, shouldn’t be subjected, passive death, poisoning yourself and others, hurts your children (that’ll hit ’em hard), dries out your skin (get the vain ones), guilt, guilt, guilt. Add to this the fact that many smokers are self-flagellatory to a point that would unnerve the most pious of Cistercian monks, and the argument doesn’t even need to take place. Which is good news, really, because it hasn’t.

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, stated that ‘the time [had] come for a ban on smoking in public places’, but noted that ‘some people have yet to be persuaded’ (4), which – given that the public have yet to be consulted – augurs badly for an impartial, democratic discussion. The final nail in the coughing was the encouraging proclamation that this ban would help the ’70 per cent of smokers who desperately want to give up’. Even if this figure is correct – and one wonders how the data was garnered without public consultation – that’s an awful lot of very weak-willed people. Seventy per cent thinking it would be a good idea to give up is plausible – 70 per cent wanting to give up, but finding it a bit hard, is credible. But in desperation? With emotive and seemingly unjustified statements like these, it appears that the ban will go through nae matter how the populace feels.

But this may not just be an attempt to boldly follow the trail blazed by the Celtic Tiger. It does not require conspiracy-theorist paranoia to wonder if this is in fact a vanguard action to assess how a ban might work in England and Wales. Already smokers are the subjects of numerous attacks. Actually banning smoking would be rather counterproductive, given that the tobacco industry produces annual revenue of £9.5billion (5), but smoking is now verboten in almost all buildings, transport, many restaurants, and at most bars.

Furthermore, even where you can smoke you’d better not leave any evidence behind. Many cities have now started to issue on-the-spot fines of £50 for dropping a cigarette end in the street (6), and in London the number of wardens empowered to enforce this has trebled to 750 (7). In fairness, London mayor Ken Livingstone is planning to distribute 15,000 ‘heat-resistant cigarette butt pouches’ so that smokers can carry around their litter like a carcinogenic kangaroo (8), but this is in keeping with the tenor of that attack, which is being billed as an initiative to protect London from the alleged 2,700 tonnes of cigarette related litter produced each year. Since this cannot save money (the employment of 500 extra wardens will surely swallow any profits generated by not having to sweep up those tabs at the same time as you sweep the rest of the street), and won’t make London look any cleaner (not while there’s all that chewing gum on the pavement) it comes across as a thinly veiled attack on smokers.

Smokers are the new lepers. Practically the only place where a quiet cigarette can be enjoyed unmolested nowadays is around a corner and up against an outer wall, which puts me, for one, in mind of blindfolds and barked orders. Every packet of cigarettes you buy carries dire warnings of what they will do to you, and there has even been talk of putting photos of cancerous lungs under the cellophane as well, in case smokers can’t read.

No discussion of the issue is complete without at least one person declaring that smoking is ‘a disgusting habit’. It isn’t. It may be a habit that some people find disgusting, but it’s really only the enjoyment of the by-products of combusting fossil fuels, and if you find that ‘disgusting’ then you’d better have forsworn your car, which works on the same principle. Passive smoking is not nice, but in pollution terms it’s peanuts – which, given the rising number of allergy sufferers, are probably more statistically dangerous anyway. Smokers are easy to bash because they’re a minority, albeit one that pays an awful lot of tax.

When UK health secretary John Reid recently suggested that smoking was one of the few remaining pleasures left to some (9), he was shouted down by those on his own side concerned he might have strayed off-message, as well as anti-smoking campaigners desperately worried that he might have a point.

As a former 60-a-day man who has now given up – and is in charge of creating a viable national health strategy – one could be forgiven for assuming that Dr Reid was well-placed to make an even-handed judgement on the issue, unlike, say, the single-issue lobbyists of ASH. But he was defending the indefensible. Smoking is the one vice guaranteed to get everyone’s thermals in a twist because it represents the last dying (emphysemic) gasp of the freedom to take the consequences for your own actions.

Smokers engage in an expensive activity that may well kill them in return for transitory pleasure. What with all the government awareness campaigns, it follows that they do so knowingly and willingly. The argument that they are physically craven addicts (no pun intended) does not wash, as nicotine leaves the body within half an hour – were this so, all smokers could use patches, and the problem would end. No, smokers do it because they enjoy it. And we all reap the benefits (it would, no doubt, be somewhat easier to swallow the New Labour cant if they renounced all tobacco revenue. How can they profit from such evil?). Philosophically, smoking represents the freedom to damage yourself if you wish to, unsupported by popular sanction, and unplanned by government strategy. No wonder they hate it so much.

Only time will tell if the Scottish Plan works out. The evidence from Ireland is that trade in pubs has not suffered from the ban, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Irish didn’t like smoking, more that they still like drinking. If there isn’t a public outcry, rioting in Leith, and queues of quivering addicts down the Royal Mile crawling in search of an angry norepinephidrine fix, then we may well find ourselves saddled with a smoking ban this side of the border.

No doubt some people will be happier that the air around them no longer hangs thick with the pall of a thousand tabs, but I, for one, will watch with wrathful regret as one more freedom vanishes in a puff of…what?

Jamie Douglass carried out postgraduate research into youth subculture at the University of Cambridge, and worked as an intern at spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: No smoking

(1) Smoking ban proposed for England, BBC News, 16 November 2004

(2) Scotland smoking ban to go ahead, BBC News, 10 November 2004

(3) Scots smoking plan details set out, BBC News, 10 November 2004

(4) Scots smoking plan details set out, BBC News, 10 November 2004

(5) Economic importance, Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, 1 April 2004

(6) £50 litter fine keeps tabs on smokers, Colin Blackstock, Guardian, 3 July 2003

(7) £50 Fine for smokers who drop butts, Evening Standard, 30 September 2004

(8) No butts says Mayor. Put your fags in the bin, Guardian, 30 September 2003

(9) Health Secretary Under Fire for ‘Let Poor Smoke’ Remarks, The Times (London), 9 July 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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