Brighton Council: what have you been smoking?

Today, the health and wellbeing board of Brighton and Hove Council is considering starting a consultation on whether to ban smoking in the city’s outdoor spaces like parks and beaches. Such a proposal should be welcomed – because it starkly reveals the ludicrous basis of bans on smoking more generally.

The council’s press release should get a nomination for the Guinness Book of Records for the number of non-sequiturs and sly pieces of juxtaposition it contains. For example, take this paragraph: ‘The emphasis is on creating an environment free from second-hand smoke. Second-hand smoke is particularly dangerous for children. Children exposed to passive smoke are at higher risk of respiratory infections, asthma, bacterial meningitis and cot death. Second-hand smoke has been linked to around 165,000 new cases of disease among children in the UK each year.’

It is true that the same amount of smoke inhaled would be more dangerous to a child than an adult. But the implication is that second-hand smoke is a significant danger to everyone and a particular danger to children. This is nonsense. The evidence of a risk from second-hand smoke has always been flimsy, as noted many times on spiked, including in 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2007, while the benefits of bans have been greatly overstated. The indoor smoking bans could even have increased health risks for children. Adults, instead of smoking in the pub where there are rarely children, now have a greater incentive to smoke at home, sitting next to the kids.

After listing some of the diseases where risk is increased from passive smoking (and some of the risk increases are so small that they must be questionable), we get the ‘165,000 new cases of disease’ claim. That comes from a 2010 report by the Royal College of Physicians. The overwhelming number of those ‘disease events’ were middle-ear infections, for which the cases attributed to passive smoking were just seven per cent of all cases in the UK. Tricksy bit of bait and switch, huh?

Of course, precisely zero cases would be affected by a ban on smoking in outdoor spaces. Cigarette smoke is far more dilute for those around a smoker than for the smoker themselves. Indoors, the smoke lingers, so its effect increases, but is still small. But outdoors, the smoke drifts harmlessly away. The council’s director of public health, Tom Scanlon, has admitted as much. ‘Outdoor tobacco smoke dissipates more quickly than indoor smoke’, he said, before adding, tendentiously, ‘but in certain concentrations and weather conditions it still poses an additional health risk to non-smokers’. That risk must be vanishingly small. Even one of the biggest tobacco haters of them all, Simon Chapman, has suggested that ‘fleeting encounters with cigarette plumes’ in wide open spaces pose ‘a near homeopathic level of risk to others’. Anyone who seriously thinks that a ban on outdoor smoking will protect children’s health has clearly been smoking something rather stronger than tobacco.

So if the risk is so small, why bother with such bans? The aim can only be to ‘denormalise’ smoking – as indeed was the primary aim of all the previous smoking bans. Bit by bit, smoking will be banned from one place after another. It will disappear from view, be airbrushed from our consciousness. The anti-smoking crowd has more in common with Joseph Stalin than it cares to admit.

Rob Lyons is campaigns manager at Action on Consumer Choice.

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