The global crusade against the ‘evil weed’

As a smoking ban comes into force in England, writers in Paris, Rome, Brisbane, New York, Stockholm and Ireland report on the impact of enforced stubbing-out across the globe.


Topics Politics

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As of 1 July, it will be illegal to light up a cigarette in designated places of work in England. Across the world – from the pub-culture of Ireland to the formerly smoky cafés of Italy to the lager-swilling bars of Australia – smoking bans are being enforced with alarming uniformity. What’s behind this global crusade against the evil weed? spiked writers report from London, Paris, Galway, Rome, Stockholm, Glasgow, Brisbane and New York on the impact of enforced stubbing-out.

Rob Lyons

‘I’m pissed off. Why shouldn’t I be able to have a fag in peace?’ So says City worker Steve, working his way through a pint of lager at one of the pubs near the spiked office in central London, in the run-up to England’s smoking ban. Is he going to do anything about it – rebel, perhaps? ‘What could I do? What would be the point? The government don’t care what I think.’ His friend Anita doesn’t smoke, yet she thinks the ban is wrong. ‘It’s quite good for me, because I’m not that keen on smoke. But they could have found a middle way, a compromise.’ Steve’s anger is soon tempered though. ‘It’s probably a good excuse to pack it in’, he says, in a rather resigned fashion.

Over at the bar, there’s a sign: ‘4 DAYS TO GO.’ You would have to be blind and deaf not to realise that the smoking ban was about to be enforced in England, following on from similar bans in Scotland and Ireland. As of 1 July, you won’t be able to light up in public places across England (literally: it is the point of lighting up that is the illegal bit, even before you put the fag in your mouth and take a puff). You could fund a lot of research into lung cancer with the money that has been spent on ads raising awareness of the coming ban.

The woman who serves me my drinks doesn’t seem to have a strong opinion on it. ‘It doesn’t really affect me’, she says. After a moment’s thought, she adds: ‘I guess it will be nice to go home without my clothes smelling of cigarettes.’ She captures the mixed emotions there are over the ban. A few people are positively enthusiastic about it, knowing that they’ll be able to go into pubs without being irritated by smoke (but you rather think that they’re not the kind of people who like pubs anyway). Then there are the smokers, who are frustrated that another pleasure is being taken from them but who also try to convince themselves that there’s an upside to the anti-smoking hysteria – ie, it might help them pack it in.

This mix of attitudes provides a useful snapshot of Britain today. The intolerant and the interfering have new confidence that they can get their way. And much of the rest of the population has become acquiescent to their interventions. Only occasionally, as with the petrol protests of 2000, the march against the ban on foxhunting in 2002 or the anti-war demonstration in 2003, does a single issue provide a spark for an outburst of anger at a government that is seen as remote. And these momentary bursts of rage die away as quickly as they appear.

The government will no doubt be delighted that the smoking ban has taken hold with only the merest whimper of opposition, mostly from a ‘pro-smoking’ lobby made up of disgruntled Tory types who hate what they view as the Nanny State. The smoking issue shows that the authorities have found an area where they can intervene in our lives and show themselves to be ‘caring’ and ‘attentive’ without provoking much protest. Yet, isn’t there also something sad about a government that has to force people to stub out cigarettes in order to make a connection with us? Yes, the ban shows the government’s power on matters of individual and public health – but it also suggests that any vision or mission on the part of the powers-that-be has gone up in a puff of smoke.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Gerry Feehily

When I first arrived in Paris in the 1990s, smoking seemed a sensual pastime enjoyed by the entire population. On the glamourous Avenue Montaigne, sleek mothers pushed prams and puffed on Marlboros. Down-at-heel aristos in the cafés of Boulevard St Germain stubbed out Gaulloises on the floor while exhorting trembling poodles to be quiet.

Elsewhere, as intellectuals blew smoke over the front page of Le Monde, somewhere by the toilets in their enclave of uncorrupted air (as prescribed by the Loi Fillon of 91) non-smoking losers were invited to reflect on the error of their ways. Smoking was cool, and it struck me, as a smoker myself, that if the reward for our common pursuit was early death in an oxygen tent, then I was at least in elegant company.

A decade on and Parisians still tend to channel anti-social impulses by raging at fellow drivers, rather than smokers. In cafés and bars, those caught flapping their hands about as a strato-cumulus of Rothman’s drifts over their food, desperately trying to waft away other people’s cigarette smoke, are considered a bit psycho-rigid, and even more pitiful, mal baisé – meaning ‘badly fucked’.

The recent ban on smoking in public spaces, however, has been received with a Gallic shrug, a pursing of the lips, a c’est normal. Outside offices in the Opéra district, employees exhale smoke at the spring sun, and in general, contend that this is in the general interest. Chugging away on a Lucky Strike, besuited Jean Pierre says ‘it’s healthier, just like New York’, quite cheerfully.

But isn’t Jean-Pierre responsible for voting in Nicolas Sarkozy and all the other America-enamoured creeps who, apart from ruining our lives for the next five years, will implement the second part of the ban in 2008, which extends to cafés, bars and restaurants? This is the theory at La Petite Porte, my local hangout by the red light district of Saint Denis, where smoking and drinking in confined spaces goes on as if part of the revolutionary tradition. ‘Let them ban mortgages’, says Arsène, a musician. ‘They’re bad for your health, too, and they also damage sperm, I believe.’ Tatooed Marie, the barmaid, with a Chesterfield in her mouth, concurs. ‘Those idiots want health. But what we need is more life.’

Gerry Feehily is a publisher and writer in Paris. His first novel, Fever, is published by Parthian Books.

Brendan O’Neill

If anyone was likely to take a stand against a ban on smoking in pubs, it would be the Irish, right? Especially the rural Irish, who are still referred to by some as ‘the fighting Irish’ and who like nothing better than a pint or five and a fag in order to unwind after a hard day’s graft. And yet, in the Westernmost part of Galway in the West of Ireland, locals have inhaled the smoking ban without so much as a peep of protest. Far from railing against the ban, those playboys of the Western world who are partial to a cigarette willingly became ‘Patio People’ – a reference to the sad gangs of smokers who now must exit the pub every time they want to light up and gather around patio heaters with their fellow social lepers.

When the Irish government outlawed smoking in pubs and clubs (and all other ‘places of work’) in 2004, the Vintners’ Association of Ireland said the ban would be ‘unworkable, untenable and unenforceable’. You’d think. In fact it has enforced itself rather well. A few months ago, in the Alcock and Brown, a hotel and bar in Clifden Town in Galway, there was not a whiff of smoke. ‘No one would dream of lighting up inside, they’d be glared out of the front door’, a barmaid said. Outside of the bar, there were fag-stained tables and chairs, protected from the infamous Irish elements by huge umbrellas, upon which The Smokers sat, pulling their collars up to protect themselves against the nighttime cold as they enjoyed their illicit habit.

According to the Irish Times, 94 per cent of bar workers have had ‘little or no difficulty in implementing the smoking ban’. Cigarette sales have fallen. Gallaher, which makes Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges and has about 50 per cent of the Irish cigarette market share, says sales fell by 7.5 per cent in the first six months of the ban in 2004 – that was 260million fewer fags sold than normal. The Irish News of the World, bowled over by people’s acceptance of the ban, referred to it as ‘the health initiative of the century’.

The Irish experience shows just how political the anti-smoking crusade is. For all the claims that this is just a ‘health initiative’, in fact the highest echelons of government have celebrated the ban’s moral and political purpose. On the first anniversary of the ban, the government held a ceremony on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin to mark the ‘shared sense of national pride in a measure that will have significant health implications, not just for us here today, but for our children and generations to come’. National pride? Generations to come? Through the smoking ban, the scandalised and corrupt Irish authorities are trying to fashion a sense of mission, to re-present themselves as altruistic and future-oriented. And they have chosen the issue of smoking on which to do that because they instinctively know that these interventions into personal health matters generate little protest or rebellion these days.

In Ireland, decadent establishment figures have used the smoking ban to reinforce their grip over an increasingly atomised public. Someone should blow smoke up their arses.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Maria Grasso

In a country where nearly 30 per cent of the population describe themselves as regular cigarette smokers, and where the ritual caffe’ e sigaretta is as sacred as the Virgin Mary, Italy might seem a most unlikely member of the pioneering smoke-free elite club.

And yet, on 10 January 2005, the Italian government became one of the first in Europe to ban smoking in all indoor public places, including cafés, bars, clubs, restaurants, airports, and railway stations. The law only allows smoking in special bunker-style sealed-off rooms with mega smoke extractors. But the high costs involved in constructing such bunkers means that virtually no establishment has bothered creating one.

My first experience of the ban came in 2005, when I returned to my hometown of Rome and had to wait torturously at inefficient Italian baggage claim before I was free to flee the airport and have a hard-earned fag. Inside the airport, I had tried to hide behind a long line of trolleys with several other exasperated smokers, and enjoy a quick and illegal smoke; but we were pounced upon by a pack of hectoring Carabinieri who, ironically, were on their way back into the airport after having a strictly outdoors cigarette break of their own.

Strolling around bustling Trastevere later that night, I saw crowds of young smokers clinging together, as penguins do to protect their young, outside half-empty cafés and bars. Inside, ashtrays had disappeared, replaced by prominently displayed No Smoking signs. As we smokers repeatedly nipped outside of bars in order to light up, our non-smoking friends grew so tired of missing out on bits of chit chat that we decided to abort our bar-crawl plans altogether. So we sat instead on the fountain-steps by the glorious Santa Maria, under Trastevere’s moonlight shadow, talking, drinking tinnies, and smoking tons of fags…. We had been ejected from ‘civilised’ society and had become street people.

Later, we headed to Testaccio, a hard-house club, where we stayed until the early hours of dawn. Even our substantial alcohol intake was not enough to block out the nasty smell of sweat lingering in the club’s air – another consequence of smoke-free policies is that all the other smells normally overpowered by cigarette smoke become much more apparent. We headed outside to escape the odour and to puff on a cigarette. Some of the smokers we met made fun of the ban on smoking in a club where, never mind the deadly rum e pera shots, the average punter had probably ingested a rather comprehensive pick’n’mix of illicit substances.

The morning after, with a blasting hangover and coffee mug in hand, I was relieved to be back home. My hair may have smelt like rotten sweat (rather than fags), but at least my mum hadn’t replaced my bedside ashtray with a si prega di non fumare sign. And I sure as hell didn’t have to step outside to light up.

Maria Grasso is a postgraduate student at Oxford and is on the committee for the Battle of Ideas.

Nathalie Rothschild

One cold October night in 2004 I found myself at a house party in Stockholm, puffing away at a cigarette in a crowded kitchen full of reality TV producers. ‘I can’t wait until bars go smoke-free this summer’, said a guy in his late twenties. ‘Me neither!’ another concurred. A subtle hint for me to stub out, I wondered? And yet they were smoking, too. It transpired that both wanted to quit, and they believed a ban might force them to do just that. For all the talk of how perverse it is for members of the public to submit themselves to the surveillance of reality TV, here were the producers of such reality shows welcoming some heavy-handed intrusion into their own lives.

The ban on smoking inside public spaces in Stockholm was enforced in June 2005. I returned to the city, where I was born and brought up, for a warm spring weekend break in May 2007. I found that outdoor seating areas had popped up in cafés and restaurants to accommodate the remaining smokers. ‘The smoking ban is really quite illiberal’, I suggested to a friend, someone with whom, in my teen years, I had spent many hours in Stockholm’s alternative cafés, the two of us chain-smoking, coffee-sipping and flirting with long-haired boys. ‘Yeah, but it’s sooo nice’, she replied. Since our days bunking off school, she has quit smoking and become a mother of twins; like many others in Stockholm, she welcomed the ban.

Stockholm’s cafés now
have outdoor heaters

I stopped by one of our old alternative cafés, and noticed that the young punks, long-haired boys carrying guitar cases and the men in black coats scribbling teen-angst poetry (when they should be at PE lessons) are no longer there. Instead, the café was full of trendy middle-class couples and babies in buggies. ‘The kids don’t come anymore’, one of the waiting staff told me.

Something has changed for the worse in the city. Sure, bars, cafés and restaurants have come up with solutions to the ban, such as designated smoking areas (in which no drink or food are allowed), outdoors infraheating, and a system of lending blankets and jackets to nightclub revellers who go outside for a fag in the freezing Swedish winter. Yet, as a couple of middle-aged friends told me, ‘it’s still very undemocratic’. As heavy smokers, they no longer enjoy going out.

All the arguments I heard for and against the smoking ban in Stockholm seemed too focused on the smoke itself – the extent to which it is unhealthy or bothersome. But there is something more important at stake here: the issue of personal choice, and the question of whether the authorities should have the right to shape social interaction in public spaces. For me, coming back as a visitor to my former hometown, it seemed the atmosphere in Stockholm has become sterile and uniform. People’s clothes may smell better after a night out, and parents can comfortably take their young children to cafés and restaurants – but, personally, I would rather wash an extra load of laundry and live in a mature society where we decide for ourselves what to do, rather than one where we’re infantilised by the apparently caring authorities.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Stuart Waiton

Joe, an ex-steel worker who is now a community education worker in Airdrie, Scotland, is the most vociferous opponent of the smoking ban I know. And he only smoked once a week.

He and his mates would meet in their local each Friday and smoke a Cuban cigar over three or four pints. ‘A great night out’, he says. No longer. Smoking in public places was banned in Scotland last year. Chris, an ex-punk turned sociology lecturer, who recently moved from Scotland to Cyprus, tells me he will never give up – ‘out of spite for those bastards’. He claims he moved to Cyprus because he’d had enough of the ‘crap in Britain’.

These two voices of opposition to the smoking ban in Scotland are unusual. For most smokers in Scotland the ban is a ‘bit of a pain in the arse’, but little more. At my local in the Southside of the city – a ‘leftie-Celtic’ pub – there is no passion for the ban, ‘but what can you do?’ people ask. It would, after all, be ‘unfair on the bar staff’ to allow full-on smoking. Many smokers support the ban, some because it forces them to smoke less, others because it’s ‘not right to make the workers here breathe in my smoke’.

Other smokers simply shrug, and note that they have actually got to know more people now that they are huddled together outside having a sly cigarette. Every cloud of smoke has a silver lining.

Stuart Waiton is a youth worker and director of Generation: Youth Issues.

Dom McCarthy

Brisbane has some of the most extensive anti-smoking laws anywhere in the world. Crawling a few bars on an unusually cold and wet Saturday night in the sub-tropical state capital, I walked past two shivering smokers on damp George Street. I went into a distinctly haze-free Murphy’s bar. The smell of cleaning fluid and detergent on the ashtray-free tables greeted me. A year into the ban on smoking in public places, where indoor lighting-up has been replaced by Designated Outdoor Smoking Areas (or DOSAs), this is how all bars in Brisbane now smell: sanitary; somehow too clean.

I sit with Marty Hurl, the pub’s off-duty manager, on a rain-lashed and empty first-floor veranda. He lights up and tells me that when the smoking ban came in last year, it was ‘bollocks’. He said the bar has lost business, as more people are spending time outside when they should be enjoying a drink inside. He is no fan of the enforced DOSAs, instead believing ‘it should be up to the entrepreneur if he wants a venue that allows smoking or not, and then let the punters decide which pubs to go in’.

Over a comedy sized Belgian beer on nearby Edward Street, I met a middle-aged man called Jim. Wearing an Adelaide Reds scarf, he tells me the laws here are ‘shithouse, mate’. His home city of Adelaide will follow Brisbane’s smoking-ban lead in November this year. Twenty-year-old Brisbane smoker Rachel told me the whole thing ‘sucked’. The worst thing about the ban, she says, is having to leave drinks with bouncers in nightclubs while she goes to a DOSA. She said she’s terrified of someone slipping her a ‘Roofie’ while her drink is out of sight. It’s a clash of two panics, where the fear of drink-spiking mingles with the hysteria about smoking.

At another bar, the Pig and Whistle, health and safety is paramount. On the dance floor there is a yellow cone in the middle, warning that the floor may be slippery because of smokers moving in and out and bringing the rain with them on their shoes. Could this be an unappreciated problem of the smoking ban: injuries on the dancefloor? I take a bag of peanuts to the Pig and Whistle’s outside DOSA, to chat with the huddled smokers; but then a member of the bar staff comes over. No food is allowed in the DOSA, he tells me. Eating around smokers: that is against the law, too. And you can’t take your drinks into the DOSA either.

Feeling a temptation to rebel, I bought a 20-pack of Marlboros. But they had to remain in the box, because for me – a former smoker – it just ain’t right to smoke without drinking. And under Brisbane’s new laws, you simply cannot drink and smoke together anywhere in public. I sell my pack of cigs at a cut-price $6 to a Marlboro fan in the taxi queue, and happily bid farewell to the minefield of regulations that is Brisbane’s new smoke-free nightlife.

Dom McCarthy lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Alan Miller

NY was one of the first cities to ban smoking in public places. It seemed like an exception at the time, an American curiosity, yet now the world is following suit.

In the West Village early on a Saturday evening, a group of smokers is huddled outside Le Deux Gamins, a funky French bistro restaurant and bar. Surprisingly, they mostly support the ban. Anthony, who’s better known in New York by his dj name ‘Tone 1’, told me: ‘It is good because I am an occasional smoker, and now when I come home from bars and clubs I do not stink of smoke. It used to get everywhere, particularly in my locks.’ What if the bar or club put in a strong ventilating system? ‘No, it wouldn’t work’, he said. Here were a new ‘cool crew’ of people who work in nightlife entertainment, and yet they seemed to back enforced restrictions on what people can do on a night out.

In Gardiner, upstate New York, I meet up with a group of skydivers who are also proud smokers (well, smoking is a new form of risk-taking too, it seems). Christine, 27 and from New Jersey, generally supports the ban, though ‘it sucks when it is cold’, she lamented. ‘If the extractor fans could clear the smoke, then it would be okay to smoke indoors’, she offered.

Craig, identifying himself as a part-time smoker, says he likes the ban, but doesn’t agree with it. ‘A full-on ban is a problem’, he says, ‘but I like the effects of not having smokers everywhere.’ Max, who drinks in bars in New York and New Jersey, said: ‘I think the smoking ban is extreme. Couldn’t there be some middle ground for smokers? Restaurants are private businesses and patrons should be allowed to choose whether to frequent them or not.’

In Soho, I met a group of girls from out of town who thought the whole thing was silly. But because the weather is currently very pleasant, ‘you kind of get to meet some cool people outside when you smoke’, said one. At least she is still keen on meeting people. One of the most striking things about the ban in NY is how it seems to have distanced people from one another. We are now encouraged to see our fellow drinkers or ravers as toxic and threatening, and apparently we must all be separated into smokers (bad) and non-smokers (good) for the benefit of our own health. Whatever you think of the smell of cigarettes, that idea should be stubbed out.

Alan Miller is a co-director of the NY Salon.

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