The crazy world of England’s smoking ban

It’s built on anti-pub prejudice, junk science and petty authoritarianism. So one year on, why do so few people see the ban as a blow to our freedom?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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It was getting late. A few beers had been sunk, and only the stragglers remained: the time of night when strangers start randomly talking to one another. And so it was that a hairy bicycle courier sat down beside me and offered me a cigarette. As I absentmindedly lit up, the jaws of my companions dropped.

If I had decided to launch myself into the street, reprising the dance routine from Singing in the Rain while wearing nothing but a cheeky grin, I would scarcely have got a more startled reaction. And my companions were no curtain-twitching Presbyterians, shocked by the slightest vice – they were people who hate New Labour’s smoking ban as much as I do. Their shock illustrated how far the illiberal climate in Britain has been internalised. I mean, all I was doing was having a fag.

It took the bar staff a few minutes to cotton on to what was taking place: someone was smoking indoors. I was sent packing, unceremoniously. I was an accidental lawbreaker, and the staff were expected – under pain of criminal prosecution – to turf me out of that dingy establishment for doing something that, until a year ago, was perfectly legal.

Why England’s smoking ban should be shocking

The English smoking ban came into force on 1 July 2007. Smoking is banned in almost all enclosed public spaces, including pubs, restaurants and on public transport. Only places that are ‘like homes’ or are specifically excluded by the health secretary are exempt from the ban. In essence, smoking is only allowed outdoors and in private homes. Posters must be displayed in all workplaces reminding people that smoking is illegal. Individuals who defy the ban face a £50 on-the-spot fine; businesses can be fined £200 for allowing smoking or not displaying the signs.

There are many shocking things about the smoking ban – or, at least, they would be shocking if we were not inured to them.

First there’s the fact that the flimsy evidence that passive smoking causes any significant harm is taken seriously. According to figures from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) – Britain’s fundamentalist anti-smoking lobby group – the incidence of lung cancer for non-smokers is about 10 cases per 100,000 people. Regular passive smoking (that is, living with a smoking partner, not just encountering one in bars or restaurants) increases that by about 25 per cent – 12.5 cases per 100,000. So, even if these figures are correct, passive smoking causes 2.5 cases of lung cancer per 100,000 of the population; to put it another way, these are odds of 40,000-to-one of potentially getting lung cancer from passive smoking (1). On the basis of these remote risks, a war against smokers has been built.

The second shocking thing is that governments now believe it is their right – even duty – to decide what vices we engage in. In this, the UK is not alone. From Argentina to Zambia, governments and local authorities have been queuing up to make it extremely difficult for people to indulge in filthy habits (2). Only this week, the Dutch joined the smoking ban club, exactly a year after England’s pubs and restaurants went smoke-free (or ‘smokefree’ to use the single-word, Orwellian Newspeak preferred by the New Labour government). On the same day, patients in England’s mental institutions received the ‘protection’ of the law, too – that is, they will from now on be ‘protected’ from smoke by a super-killjoy ban on smoking even in hospitals for the mentally ill (3).

Another shocking thing is the way in which the people have been browbeaten into accepting this kind of state intervention. A quarter of the population is actively engaged, at some time or other, in the pastime of smoking; and most of the rest of the population was once happy to tolerate that pastime. Yet a noisy minority, joining forces with governments that are increasingly keen to micromanage our most personal affairs and behaviour, has managed to criminalise a perfectly normal activity. This state of affairs has been accepted with barely a murmur of protest.

The consequences for our everyday lives have been profound. Smokers are now marked out as ‘undesirables’, shunted on to the street or to some other open area to partake in their evil habit. The simple business of socialising has been undermined: alcohol-fuelled chatter is persistently interrupted by the disappearance of smokers to the nearest open space. Many people, particularly the elderly, for whom getting up and walking outside every time they want a cigarette is something of an ordeal, are visiting pubs less and less. There is something rather inhumane in the zealous anti-smoking crusade, where the health authorities and their cheerleaders seem happy to make our lives worse in the name of ‘protecting us’ from harm.

More pubs, once lively centres of human interaction, are closing their doors for good at an alarming rate. A smoke-free atmosphere is great for those who dislike the smell of fags; they can enjoy their glass of wine in greater comfort. Unfortunately, these are very often the kind of people who don’t really like pubs anyway. The British Beer and Pub Association noted in March this year that ‘1,409 pubs closed during 2007. This is a sharp acceleration on previous years. Pub numbers were down 216 in 2006 – four a week – following a fall of 102 in 2005 – two a week.’ (4) This is not solely due to the smoking ban, of course; but giving drinkers yet another reason to stay away from pubs by making it more difficult to sit and chat and interact has been a disaster. Campaigners are up in arms over the closure of rural post offices in Britain – yet surely the local boozer is worth defending, too?

In short, the smoking ban is an unwarranted intrusion into our freedom to choose, which is built upon junk science and which causes real harm to our social lives and to many people’s livelihoods. If ever there was a case for making a stand for liberty – for the right of people to make choices and take action free from government interference – surely this is it.

A liberties ‘blind spot’

Apparently not. The other shocking thing about the smoking ban – perhaps the most shocking thing of all – is that in the year since it was enforced liberty campaigners have, by and large, ignored it. They have launched pitched battles over how long someone can be detained without charge or the finer points of the Human Rights Act, but they seem incapable of seeing the smoking ban as illiberal or people’s daily choices as a freedom issue. Our legal freedoms are important, of course, as spiked has made clear in its 10-point action plan to defend democratic rights: Slash 42 Days to 24 Hours. Any attack on our fundamental legal rights is an attack on all of us, weakening individual sovereignty and strengthening the illiberal culture. Yet not every freedom can be written down as a ‘right’ to be defended by lawyers; it is also important to stand up for a culture of freedom, and for the ability of people to make personal choices in their everyday lives. The smoking ban is also an attack on us all – smokers and non-smokers alike – because it further legitimises the contemporary authoritarian outlook and strengthens the state’s hand to intervene in our most intimate lives.

The narrow, legalistic focus of today’s debate about freedom in Britain can be seen clearly in the upcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election. Former Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis triggered the election after resigning as an MP over the Labour government’s decision to extend the time limit for detention without trial to 42 days. Davis describes the election as a referendum on the Labour government’s attack on our historic liberties, and he has won the backing of numerous libertarian commentators and activists.

Yet the by-election also highlights two problems with the discussion of liberty. Firstly it shows how narrowly defined is freedom these days. So Davis, described by some as a champion of liberty, is opposing 42 days’ detention without charge but he is actively campaigning for 28 days’ detention without charge. Once freedom is re-defined as paper rights to be defended on our behalf by liberal-minded lawyers, rather than as an everyday lived experience, then it can be easily denigrated. If Davis’s campaign is successful, we will have the ‘freedom’ to be detained for 28 days without charge.

Secondly, the by-election shows that liberals’ and libertarians’ failure to challenge the smoking ban, and the politics of behaviour more broadly, has allowed some rather cranky, right-leaning elements, like the UK Independence Party, to claim these issues as their own and to pose as the defenders of liberty. Then there are isolated eccentrics like Hamish Howitt, a cheeky chappie Scottish pub landlord who runs a bar in the seaside resort of Blackpool called the Crazy Scots Fun Palace and who is standing against Davis in order to challenge the smoking ban.

If his website is anything to go by, Howitt is a bit wacky. His site tells us: ‘THIS IS NOT A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY, THIS IS LITTLE BRITAIN WHERE ANIMAL RIGHTS, GAY RIGHTS, FIVE STAR ORDER RIGHTS, RASCIST RIGHTS FLOURISH, WHERE POLITICAL ACTIVISTS LOBBY AND DICTATE AND ABUSE 14 MILLION PEOPLE. THIS IS NOT STALINIST RUSSIA OR NAZI GERMANY, THIS IS SHAME AND BLAME ENFORCED STRESS, RESPECT! IT’S A MOCKERY, 14 MILLION FORCED TO BUTANE GAS CHAMBERS, PARADED AND PATRONISED BY PEOPLE WHO DON’T DO PUBS.’ (5) This is the stuff of green-ink letter-writers – and yet in the forthcoming ‘liberty by-election’, Howitt is virtually alone in challenging the government’s authoritarian smoking ban.

Howitt does make some decent points. At a recent gathering organised by the smokers’ rights group, Forest, he argued: ‘Government and politicians are very keen to use the word “compliance”, but compliance suggests agreement between two or more parties. This is not compliance, this is enforcement. [As a pub landlord], I’ve now faced 22 prosecutions, I’m facing another nine prosecutions. I’m now virtually bankrupted now by this government.’ Why do so few others recognise that the smoking ban, like the government’s other behaviour-policing initiatives, is sinister and illiberal, rather than consensual?

A year on from the introduction of the smoking ban, it is high time we shook up the debate about liberty. It is not good enough to have David Davis fighting for our ‘right’ to be detained for 28 days rather than 42, and it is not good enough that such is the liberal intelligentsia’s blind spot on the government’s illiberal politics of behaviour that the baton of liberty has effectively been passed to some slightly off-the-wall, pro-smoking campaigners. Instead, we should make the link between the government’s attack on our legal rights and its assault on our ability to make personal choices, and show that both are part of a new culture of unfreedom that is harming social life, society and the integrity of the individual.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons accused UK health campaigners of smoking smokers out of polite society. Ken McLaughlin described the smoking ban in psychiatric institutions as madness. spiked writers around the world reported on the global crusade against the ‘evil weed’. Nathalie Rothschild reported on a rare protest against the English smoking ban. Mick Hume reflected on what the ban says about today’s society. Or read more at spiked issue Smoking.

(1) Passive smoking, Precautionary Tales, 11 April 2003

(2) For a full list of bans, see Wikipedia

(3) See A cruel and unusual ban, by Ken McLaughlin

(4) Pub closures accelerate towards 30 per week, British Beer and Pub Association

(5) Hamish Howitt’s website

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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