War on tobacco goes al fresco

Posted on October 29, 2015

In July this year Brighton and Hove Council announced it was to launch a consultation on whether to ban smoking in outdoor public spaces. While most of the discussion centred on the ban being applied on the beach - causing puzzlement as to how smoking could possibly be a problem in such a windswept area - Brighton's proposed ban would extend much further than that, including parks and outside pubs and restaurants. The ban would be just the latest in an ever-growing list of outdoor smoking bans, as detailed in a new report by the Manifesto Club and Forest.

Smoked Out: the hyper-regulation of smokers in outdoor public places shows how outdoor bans have crept in over the past few years. For example, in 2013 the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which sets out health guidelines for England and Wales, called for a blanket ban on smoking on all hospital grounds including mental health facilities. Hospitals have banned staff from smoking on hospital grounds and there is increasing regulation of all smokers, including patients and their families. Mental health patients, unable to leave hospital premises, have effectively been stopped from smoking altogether, despite the fact that many such patients find smoking to have a calming effect. One ex-patient calls the ban 'insane', creating the potential for conflict and mistrust with the staff trying to help them.

The oxymoronic term 'voluntary ban' has appeared to describe the smoking ban in two squares in Bristol and in numerous play areas around the UK. While there is rarely if ever criminal sanctions in place (yet) to prevent smokers from puffing away outdoors, emotional blackmail is epidemic with signs apparently written and drawn by children and with slogans as buttock-clenchingly awful as Nottingham City Council's effort, 'Show you care - don't smoke - it's not fair'.

But stronger action is around the corner, with the authorities going beyond tugging on heartstrings and tugging on the contents of smokers' wallets, too. The Scottish government has demanded that smoking be banned from around public buildings and urged local authorities to extend such bans elsewhere. The Royal Society of Public Health has called for outdoor smoking bans in pubs and restaurants nationwide. Moves are being made to enable enforcement of hospital smoking bans with on-the-spot fines. There is no doubt that many layers of government are looking hard at introducing bans. If a high profile authority like Brighton goes ahead, many others will quickly follow.

While Smoked Out is a useful reference on the state of play with outdoor bans, its main strength is in pulling apart the arguments made for them. The authors note how the ban on smoking in enclosed spaces, which is now in place in most of the developed world it seems, was a watershed moment. Smoking has been falling out of fashion and voluntary arrangements to restrict smoking in many workplaces existed for some time before a blanket ban was introduced. Now, with the force of law behind them and the political wind in their sails, prohibitionist campaigners have attacked one freedom after another, from display bans and 'plain' packs through to the recent ban on smoking in cars carrying children.

Yet the justifications for such bans are usually a thin disguise for moralism. The indoor smoking ban was introduced, it was said, to protect non-smokers and bar staff from 'secondhand smoke', but as Forest's Simon Clark points out in his preface to Smoked Out, there was a lack of hard evidence even for that. But there was at least a semblance of logic to protecting others from cigarette smoke. Proposals for outdoor bans simply can't be justified on health grounds. Instead, the main argument is that children need to be protected from 'smoking behaviours'. The report quotes Coventry's tobacco-control coordinator who has claimed, "The more children see smoking while growing up, the more they see it as normal and the more likely they are to start."

Thus the main aim of outdoor bans is to further 'denormalise' smoking. Children, it is hoped, will never see smokers and thus never realise they exist - or at least, not until they are past the impressionable age when they might try smoking for themselves and supposedly get 'hooked'. In other words, the aim is to airbrush smokers from society. If smoking cannot be eradicated public-health warriors hope it can be driven away from public places, with smokers understanding that they should be, in the words of Smoked Out, 'ashamed of themselves and behave accordingly'. In the Orwellian newspeak of tobacco control, draconian regulation is even presented as a form of support for smokers, all of whom are assumed to be desperate to quit, but too weak to do so.

Smokers are not a tiny minority, they are one in five of the adult population, enjoying a legal product. Yet they are being driven more and more to the margins by lawmakers and campaigners. All notion of common sense, in which smokers and non-smokers negotiate how they share public spaces is being steamrollered with little benefit to the health or well-being of anyone. In the process, many long-cherished freedoms and principles are going up in smoke.

Smoked Out, by Dolan Cummings and Josie Appleton, is published by the Manifesto Club in association with Forest. To download a copy click here.