The fag-end of public policy
The Department of Health consultation on a public smoking ban is Kafkaesque nonsense.
The Department of Health this week unveiled a consultation document outlining its proposed restrictions on smoking in public. But a ban on smoking in public is unnecessary – and will probably be less effective than the anti-smoking culture that already exists.
The proposals are for England and possibly Wales, and include enforcing a total ban on smoking in workplaces and enclosed public places, with a few exemptions. So pubs that do not prepare and serve food will be able to choose whether to allow their patrons to smoke. Private members clubs will also be allowed to carry on smoking, so long as their members vote for it at least once a year. Workplaces that double up as accommodation – such as psychiatric hospitals and prisons – would also be exempt.
These exemptions highlight the extent to which the consultation document is a nit-picking affair, agonising over every aspect of a potential ban – including the definition of words like ‘enclosed’ and ‘smoking’.
The discussion of food shows just how petty the rules about public smoking will be. Smoking pubs will be allowed to sell a limited range of ‘ambient shelf-stable products’ but not prepare any proper meals. The document asks whether the government should use some general definition of ‘snack’ or provide an approved list? If they used generic terms, might some unscrupulous pub boss cook up a way of getting around the legislation?
It is easy to imagine the most mind-bending questions arising from this. Snacks could be restricted to nuts and crisps – but what about the obesity epidemic and encouraging people to eat ‘five a day’ (fruit and veg, that is)? If fruit is allowed, but vegetables aren’t, are you allowed to serve tomatoes? Between the handwringing over definitions and the multifarious competing health messages, it will be a surprise if we’re not gnawing our hands off in despair by the time the consultation ends.
The consultation also proposes enforcement plans, which would allow smoking inspectors to swoop unannounced on premises and take samples to check if illicit smoking has taken place. Mandatory signage will include flagging up a telephone hotline so that people can shop smokers or establishments who are breaking the law.
The government seems willing to throw in gratuitous bans for good measure. So it proposes banning smoking at the bar, or within one metre of the bar, even while admitting ‘there is no evidence that this would provide any health benefit’. But since many establishments already have this ‘no smoking at the bar’ rule, why not legislate for it, asks the consultation document? Welcome to the micro-regulation of behaviour.
As the government ties itself in knots, the anti-smoking lobby is still hopeful that a complete ban can be introduced, as is proposed in Scotland. ‘The exemptions would be hard to enforce, would make the legislation unnecessarily complicated, would lead to unfair competition in the hospitality trade, and would undermine the legislation’s public health benefits’, notes a press release from the biggest anti-smoking group, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).
Yet the same press release gives a clue as to why the proposed legislation is not even needed. In over half of UK workplaces, smoking is banned already. In a further 38 per cent, smoking is only permitted in certain designated areas. Since non-smokers would never come into contact with smoke in these places, only the remaining eight per cent of workplaces will see any health benefits at all.
Even then, that health benefit remains controversial. At most, passive smoking leads to a very small increase in the absolute risk of serious illness. Even the most alarmist figures suggest that the chance of a worker in the hospitality industry dying because of secondhand smoke is roughly 20,000-to-one.
To put it another way, the risk from passive smoking, if it exists at all, is considerably lower than many other risks we accept as part-and-parcel of everyday life. As Sir Richard Doll, one of the authors of the study that drew widespread attention to the risk of smoking, said in 2001, ‘the effects of other people smoking in my presence are so small that it doesn’t worry me’.
Under these proposed changes, while smoking will still be legal, the number of places where you’ll be able to light up will diminish fast. You won’t be able to smoke at work. Since smoking has already been banned on public transport, it will also be difficult to have a fag on the way to work. The new, and few, ‘smoking pubs’ will be Britain’s equivalent of Amsterdam ‘hash bars’, with a frowned-upon activity allowed under strict and special dispensation.
And as most smokers will glumly tell you, it’s getting harder to have a fag at home. The sight of smokers sent out to the back garden or the balcony is becoming commonplace, especially when there are children in the house. A survey published this week by Developing Patient Partnerships found that 72 per cent of respondents believe smoking in homes with children should be banned; 65 per cent of smokers agreed.
This demonisation, even self-demonisation, of smokers fits a pattern in which UK governments over the past 30 years have increasingly used health as a means of winning legitimacy and modifying behaviour. This has accelerated under New Labour. And having had limited success in persuading us to stop indulging for our own sakes, now we are guilt-tripped over how our behaviour hurts others.
Most insidiously, this is done by informing us that deviating from the mores of public health threatens the lives of our children. But that isn’t true. It is simply a means by which government exercises control over our private lives and provides itself with a sense of purpose. The terms in which this control is debated mean that, while many will be annoyed by the loss of personal freedom, they will acquiesce to it.
The ban on smoking in public places is an illiberal and pointless measure. But with its petty and moralistic instrusions into our private lives, it‘s the government that is creating the poisonous atmosphere.
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