How the anti-smokers are stubbing out liberty

A new report by YouGov and ASH confuses acquiescence to the smoking ban with support for official interference.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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A YouGov report has found broad public support for restrictions on smoking, such as the bans on smoking in public places (1). Given that the report was commissioned by the lobby group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), this is perhaps unsurprising; the way such surveys are framed can certainly affect the result. Nonetheless it is true that there has been far less resistance to smoking bans than one might have predicted even a few years ago.

This has led YouGov president Peter Kellner to argue in a Guardian comment piece that ‘measures against smoking are no longer seen as an attack on personal liberty’ (2). This is true inasmuch as people rarely talk about smoking bans in such terms. There is a consensus that such bans are legitimate, a sometimes grudging acceptance that the inconvenience to individuals who want to smoke in public places is a trivial consideration. But perhaps this says more about changed attitudes to personal liberty than the particular merits of smoking bans.

The implication of Kellner’s reading is that if people did see smoking bans as an attack on personal liberty they would be more inclined to object. An alternative reading is more provocative: what if the idea of personal liberty simply has less resonance today? Kellner himself shows a weak grasp of the concept when he asks, ‘How should the right to smoke be balanced against the right to health?’ This counterposing of two equally dubious ‘rights’ is an unwieldy and unworldly way of framing a rather more prosaic question: what happens when one person’s smoke upsets other people? The libertarian position is to negotiate this with a minimum of official interference, so as to allow everyone as much freedom as possible; ban-happy anti-smokers like ASH don’t particularly care about freedom.

The wider lack of resonance for personal liberty has to do with much deeper social changes over the past generation, and arguably has more in common with political apathy and disengagement than with better education or greater social consideration, as anti-smokers might like to imagine. Indeed, Kellner and ASH mistake acquiescence for more positive support for extraordinary measures, arguing that the public is ready for even greater restrictions on smoking. For example, the survey also found that 77 per cent of the public would support a ban on smoking in cars carrying children under 18. But what does this mean?

Any question combining children and smoking, with the added spectre of cars thrown in, clearly comes with a readymade ‘correct’ answer, and the survey’s respondents evidently obliged. But how far do you take this? Should parents smoke in their children’s bedrooms? Most probably avoid it, but should there be a law to prohibit it? No? What kind of monster are you? How can you possibly defend the so-called ‘right’ to smoke in a child’s bedroom? By framing the debate in terms of ‘official ban now or filthy smoke everywhere’, ASH and others have partly succeeded in removing individual agency from the picture.

But there is still room for argument if the terms of debate are challenged. How about opening the car window both literally and metaphorically? How about acknowledging that people are capable of showing consideration for one another without official interference. The banal issue of smoking has been bizarrely and unhelpfully moralised in recent years, while the much more important issue of personal freedom has been sidelined and obscured. If the likes of ASH are allowed to set the terms of debate, we can expect to be discussing ‘smoke-free homes’ in the near future. It is up to the rest of us to assert the importance of real individual and collective responsibility and moral agency before the very idea of ‘personal liberty’ is stubbed out altogether.

Dolan Cummings is a co-organiser of the Battle of Ideas festival and a member of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns for greater personal liberty.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons looked at the crazy world of England’s smoking ban and accused UK health campaigners of smoking smokers out of polite society. 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. Dolan Cummings argued that freedom should not be for sale. Or read more at spiked issue Smoking.

1) See the YouGov report Beyond Smoking Kills here.

2) For once, freedom is not the issue,Guardian, 7 October 2008

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Topics Politics


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