Everyone knew that the proposed law banning smoking in public places was absurd; for smoking to be outlawed only in pubs that served food meant it was likely that some pubs would ditch food and become purely drinking and smoking dens. That hardly seemed a recipe for a healthy environment and so something had to be done; but surely not the complete banning of smoking in every public place in the country?
I don’t smoke, and so I am sure that I will regard pubs as being even nicer places for me to visit once smoking is banned, but this law seems all wrong. If you were to compare the way we live now to the way things were twenty years ago – with regards the general smokiness of pubs, the number of no-smoking areas and smoke-free workplaces, and in the number of smokers in general – then you can’t fail to notice that we have already made great strides in the direction the health campaigners would like us to go, all without any legislation. So why the need to ban smoking now?
I can understand the argument for banning smoking at work; I once worked in an office where most people smoked and it was pretty unpleasant. The proposal that I could just leave and get another job if I didn’t like it didn’t seem that fair to me (especially as this was in the middle of a recession and it had been tough enough just getting that job in the first place), and so I can sympathise with pub workers who don’t want to indulge in passive smoking but feel that they have little choice. Surely, though, there are all sorts of alternatives to an outright ban. You could ban smoking in the bar area itself, for example, or offer the carrot of tax relief or even the stick of health and safety regulations to encourage premises to improve their ventilation and air conditioning systems, or to create separate areas so that smokers and non-smokers are provided with a choice of where to sit. Of course, bar workers would still face smoke when they move out of the bar area, to collect glasses and so on, but then many workers face similar problems when they venture out of their offices or places of work. Plumbers, for example, may have their own smoke-free office, shop or showroom but could still have to work in a house owned by smokers, and they have to accept others’ freedoms in their work environment; or does this new law mean a private house becomes a workplace when workmen are there? Are people now going to be prevented from smoking in their own homes when they have an electrician in doing a re-wire?
It is easy, and all too tempting, to blame this law on a Labour government that is continually assailing our civil liberties in the face of public anger, but it is more depressing than that. The 200-vote majority in the commons on a free vote shows that this is not just a New Labour thing; politicians of all parties supported this bill. Also, as with ID cards and terrorism legislation the government can genuinely claim that they are in agreement with the general public on this one, as opinion polls regularly attest to. If anything, though, the figures on smoking are more disturbing.
Because I can see why people could support ID cards, 90 days detention, laws against glorifying terrorism, even capital punishment if they believe that such things will make them safer and aid national security; I don’t agree with them, but I can see there is an argument there. How though can you explain the Newsnight survey that suggested that if anything this government isn’t authoritarian enough; 64% of those polled agreed with the smoking ban, but many wanted the law to go further. 68% said that pregnant women should be banned from smoking at any time, 69% said that those with children should be banned from smoking in their own homes, and 48% wanted a total ban on smoking, full stop. I doubt many people think it is a good idea to smoke if you are pregnant, or to smoke around children, but for a majority to think that it is alright for the state to legislate in such areas seems quite worrying. For those who want a freer and more liberal society, it is starting to look like we may have no alternative but to impose it!