A dozen reasons to stub out the smoking ban

Musician Joe Jackson on why it’s time to extinguish this illiberal, undemocratic, junk science-inspired legislation.

In response to UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s ‘Your Freedom’ initiative, spiked contributors are putting forward suggestions for which illiberal laws should be consigned to the shredding machine of history. Here, musician Joe Jackson offers 12 reasons why the smoking ban, introduced in England and Wales in July 2007, should be abolished.

1. The smoking ban disregards property rights. The air in a pub ‘belongs’ neither to smokers nor non-smokers, and certainly not to politicians, but to the publican. It is the publican who should decide the smoking policy on his or her own premises.

2. The smoking ban sets a terrible precedent by blurring the boundary between public and private. A ‘public place’ should be defined as somewhere that (a) you have no choice but to enter, and/or (b) is financed by your taxes. Civic offices, libraries and law courts are ‘public places’; pubs, clubs and restaurants are not. Politicians and doctors should have no right to dictate what people do in such private spaces. If we concede to them that right, they will inevitably extend it to other behaviours and other places, for example to our cars (as they are now trying to do) and then to our homes (which has already happened in parts of the US and, in specific situations, in the UK, too).

3. The smoking ban removes freedom of choice. Not only are smokers denied the freedom to choose a place where we can enjoy a legal habit, but everyone is denied the freedom to work out their own compromises and solutions so that both smokers and non-smokers get what they want.

4. The smoking ban is undemocratic. Prior to the passing of this legislation, the UK Office for National Statistics found 68 per cent of people were opposed to a total ban. Moreover, Labour promised in its General Election manifesto in 2005 to ban smoking only in places serving food. But a total ban was imposed regardless. The only opinions lawmakers have listened to are those of medical authorities, lobby groups and - directly or indirectly - the pharmaceutical companies that frequently fund those organisations.

5. The smoking ban is socially divisive and encourages intolerance. Government is blatantly stigmatising a particular group, who must change its behaviour or be excluded from ‘correct’ society (a recent National Health Service campaign used the slogan ‘If you smoke, you stink’). Well-intentioned or not, anti-smoking authorities have created tremendous animosity between friends, neighbours and family members. The authorities have also encouraged people to think that government can, or should, intervene to stop one group of people doing whatever another group doesn’t approve of.

6. The smoking ban is hypocritical. Tobacco remains legal and the Treasury makes around £10 billion per year from taxing it. And, incidentally, there is a smoker-friendly bar in the House of Commons.

7. The smoking ban is bad for business. Despite ever more contrived efforts to ‘prove’ otherwise, pubs and clubs are dying, in part, because of the business lost as smokers find somewhere else to drink where they can smoke in peace. The ban may not be the only factor in the decline of pubs and clubs, but only the most blinkered smoke-hater would deny that it is a significant one.

8. The smoking ban is technologically backward. It is not difficult, with decent modern air filtration technology, to make smoke virtually unnoticeable, and certainly harmless.

9. The smoking ban does not stop people smoking. Even if it were appropriate to ban smoking in pubs in order to pressure people into quitting – which, as an attack on personal choice, it is not – the ban doesn’t have the desired effect. In many places (including the countries with the longest-standing bans in Europe, Ireland and Italy) smoking rates have risen since bans have been imposed. Anti-smoking zealots refuse to recognise that they have already reduced smokers to a ‘hard core’ who will not quit, and their increasingly bullying tactics are actually backfiring. Even if tobacco were made completely illegal, millions would continue to use it.

10. The smoking ban turns hospitality industry employees into law enforcers. Enforcing the law is the job of the police, not bar staff, waiters, publicans or restaurant managers. This sets another bad precedent, especially when members of the public are also encouraged to report violations of the ban. These are the methods of the Gestapo or the Stasi, who maintained control by making ordinary citizens fear each other.

11. The smoking ban does not get rid of smokers, but merely displaces us. Smokers have been forced to go to the only places we can smoke: the streets and the home. In the first case, it’s pretty hard for us not to become more visible, and to create some degree of obstruction, noise or mess; and in the second, we are, according to anti-smokers, poisoning our family members – or at least, setting a ‘bad example’. The result of all this is that, perversely, the smoking ban gives non-smokers less choice over where and when they confront smoking.

12. The smoking ban is built on an illusory health threat. This is perhaps the most important reason of all, because the question of health is used by the government to override all other considerations. In this case, the deadly health threat is ‘secondhand smoke’. But there is no actual proof that even one person has died from this phantom menace. After 40 years of studies, anti-smokers can still only produce computer projections based on dubious statistics, and ‘relative risk ratios’ which sound scary but mean nothing in the real world. That’s why we see, for instance, posters telling us that tobacco smoke contains various nasty-sounding chemicals, without mentioning that these substances are present only at infinitesimal, harmless levels.

If we accept that such feeble evidence justifies a smoking ban, we are setting the level of acceptable risk so low as to justify banning just about everything else, too: cooking (which produces carcinogens), candles, incense, open fires, perfume, etc. Thousands of products, from household cleaners to cosmetics, contain higher levels of toxic chemicals than tobacco – and all those everyday products are harmless, too.

It is also absurd to forbid adults from choosing to accept the ‘risk’ of working in a smoking venue when they are free, for instance, to work down mines, on oil rigs, fighting fires, and so on.

Ultimately, the problem here goes way beyond ‘to smoke or not to smoke’. There is a worrying general trend towards more and more intrusive legislation, justified by more and more dishonest and misleading junk science and fearmongering. Typical of this are recent claims that the continuation of a long-term decline in heart attacks is ‘caused’ by smoking bans, and the invention of a new threat, ‘thirdhand smoke’, on the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever.

What is needed is not just the repeal of the smoking ban and other illiberal laws, but a return to healthy scepticism about the claims made about various risks, fairness and tolerance towards others with different habits, and a large dose of common sense.

Joe Jackson is a musician and writer. He is a supporter of Save Our Pubs & Clubs: AmendTheSmokingBan.com, a cross-party campaign that wants amendments to the current smoking ban in Britain.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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