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A protest that didn’t hit the headlines

While all eyes were on the greenies at Heathrow, landlords, pub-patrons and karaoke kings were marching against the smoking ban in Somerset.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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When two members of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, lit up cigarettes during a concert at the O2 venue in London this week, it caused a media storm. Newspapers ran pictures of Richards and Wood holding fags as they played their guitars, under headlines such as ‘Spark me up: Stones flout ban at concert’. It seems England’s ban on smoking in public places, which came into force on 1 July, has made it easy to be a rebel. Forty years ago the Stones had to take drugs or smash things up in order to make the front pages; now they just have to puff on a Marlboro.

The managers of O2 were cautioned, but both they and the ageing rock stars avoided a fine. Chris Elliott, who runs a pub-entertainment company called Starstruck Karaoke in the west of England, was not so lucky. Last week, he was forced to cough up £50 after smoke enforcement officers caught him smoking in an alleyway next to a pub in Somerset. Maybe the anti-smoking police were angry with Mr Elliott not only because he was smoking within metres of a place of work – the horror! – but he had also just come off one of England’s first public demonstrations against the smoking ban.

‘I can’t really see much difference between Keith Richards and myself’, says Elliott, a 30-year-old pub dj who specialises in karaoke nights. ‘Except he’s got the money to pay a fine and I don’t!’ On 11 August, Elliott, his business partner Paul Toole and 50 of their friends and acquaintances had taken part in a protest march against the ban on smoking in public places when the enforcement officers apparently ‘pounced’ on them during a post-demo private function.

Elliott says that, in total, around 200 people, ranging in ages from 16 to 80, had marched against the smoking ban through the centre of Glastonbury, Somerset. They were protesting, not in favour of smoking, but against the ‘loss of freedom to choose’. Elliott and Toole, who organised the Glastonbury march, as well as one in Wells earlier in the summer on 14 July, are both smokers. But Elliott emphasises that they are ‘pro choice’ – that is, they believe that pub landlords should be free to decide for themselves whether or not their establishments should permit people to light up.


Marchers protest in Glastonbury against the smoking ban

On 1 July, taking its cue from Ireland, New York, Rome and other parts of the world that have banned the evil weed in public, the New Labour government made our lives ‘smokefree’. It banned the lighting-up of cigarettes in any building, space, bus-stop or vehicle (including black taxis) that can reasonably be described as a ‘place of work’. And yes, it is the lighting up that is the crime. You don’t have to inhale, or even raise the cigarette to your lips; it is against the law simply to light a fag in a place of work. What’s more, every workplace in the land has to prominently display signs saying ‘It is against the law to smoke in these premises’, and the government has set up a ‘smoking hotline’ which people can phone in order to squeal on those who break the rules.

Elliott has never protested before. He says he is ‘not a political person’. But he believes that, in enforcing such a stringent smoking ban, the government is ‘taking our liberties away – and now that they’ve taken away that freedom, they’ll move on to something else’. ‘Indeed, they are now talking about stipulating that smokers have to stand so many metres away from a pub entrance. And of course they’ve already banned junk food advertising from children’s TV programmes’, he says. He’s also concerned about the effect of the ban on local businesses. He tells me it is ridiculous that he and his partner cannot smoke in their own van, the ‘Starstruck Karaoke’ van, which is classed as a work vehicle, despite the fact that they are the only two people who ever use it and they are both smokers who are not bothered by one another’s ‘second-hand smoke’.

‘The national news don’t seem to report the negative effects of the ban’, he says. ‘In Ireland 1,200 pubs have shut down since the smoking ban was introduced, and in Scotland it has led to 34 bingo clubs closing down. Unlike the big pub chains, like Wetherspoons, small community pubs don’t always have the budget to put up smoking shelters and heaters and so they lose out.’

In order to fire up support for their demos against the ban, Elliott and Toole visited most of the pubs in Glastonbury. Except for one establishment, all of the landlords and landladies they spoke to said they should have been given the choice about whether to introduce a ban in their premises. And some complained to Elliott and Toole about a fall in custom and in the number of patrons. ‘People are noticing an effect on their trade’, he says.

Even non-smoking pub-goers and nightclubbers came along to Elliott and Toole’s protests, to express their concern about the dampening effect of the smoking ban on nightlife in general. ‘They have noticed a change in the atmosphere. They don’t like being left alone at the table or having to go outside to continue a conversation when their smoking friends want to have a cigarette’, says Elliott. Starstruck Karaoke runs five disco nights a week in pubs in and around Somerset. ‘It used to be brilliant. People would stay inside all night, dancing on the tables. Now, everyone takes their drinks outside to the street so they can smoke. Then the pubs get into trouble because local residents complain about the noise.’

Elliott argued with various drinkers and clubbers about the lack of evidence that second-hand smoke causes serious health problems, and non-smokers were responsive to his arguments. Some complained, however, that smoke in pubs and clubs and restaurants made their hair or clothes smell. ‘Well, a lot of things make you smell bad. Working in a chip shop makes you smell, too, but that doesn’t mean we should close down chip shops’, says Elliott.

Elliott believes the government should convey its message that ‘smoking is bad for you’, which of course is true, in less illiberal ways. Pubs should be allowed to come up with their own solutions, such as installing an air filtration system that ‘would remove 99.97 per cent of toxic fumes’: ‘Such pubs would be even cleaner than non-smoking ones’, he says.

A protest march on the issue of smoking might seem strange. Those who talk about a ‘right to smoke’ are usually quite strange and conspiratorially minded individuals who believe a big evil Nanny State is out to ruin our lives and who frequently use grating phrases like ‘it’s political correctness gone mad!’ Elliott himself sounds a bit conspiratorial at times. Yet it was the government that politicised smoking, turning it from a habit indulged by some people into a great evil that must be quashed by bans and ceaseless public information broadcasts. Where once people would have been trusted to sort out amongst themselves where to smoke and where not to smoke, and how to share the same space without letting smoke become a big issue, now it is assumed that the government must intervene and knock all of our heads together. In this sense, the ban represents an illiberal state incursion into public space and a further erosion of individual autonomy. Which means a political protest on ciggies and choice becomes a strangely appropriate response.

It can’t be much fun djing to an empty dance floor or singing along to the karaoke when no one is listening because they’re all outside smoking or talking to smokers. Elliott and Toole have already planned another protest march and rally on 20 October in Bristol. ‘We will carry on protesting and will only think about stopping if we find no one is supporting us.’ So look out for the Starstruck Karaoke van – it may come to your town soon, blaring out hits such as I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. I’m sure the Stones would approve if you sang your smoke-filled lungs out to that one.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

spiked writers around the world reported on the global crusade against the ‘evil weed’. At the start of New Labour’s third term, Mick Hume predicted a smoke-free, low-fat, therapy-friendly land fit for foxes. After the introduction of the ban, he reflected on what it says about today’s society. Dolan Cummings said the ban was a victory for the inner teacher’s pet. Brid Hehir argued that the intolerance of smoking by health workers is manipulative and moralistic. Or read more at spiked issue Smoking.

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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