First they came for the smokers…

The war on smoking has set the template for state meddling in our lives.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics UK

Over the past 40 years, smoking policy has shifted from public information about health risks to providing no-smoking zones to direct coercion to prevent people from smoking.

In this sequence, public health has shifted from a position of accepting people’s right to personal choice – ie, to smoke or not to smoke, so long as you do not harm others – to an almost complete obliteration of this right in policy documents (the only question remaining is whether a measure can be successfully enforced or not).

In the 1970s, government was mainly concerned that the public should be adequately informed of the risks to their health. It introduced health warnings on cigarette packets, as well as restrictions on tobacco advertising, attempting to rein in the power and seduction of publicity that for decades had claimed that smoking was beneficial for health.

In the 1980s and 1990s there were no-smoking areas on public transport and in restaurants, and no-smoking days to encourage smokers to quit. Yet, tellingly, these initiatives respected the principle of choice. No-smoking areas were introduced to provide a choice for the non-smokers who were by now becoming a majority. No-smoking days were targeted at smokers ‘who wanted to quit’, not those who did not.

In the 2000s, the banning of smoking in enclosed public places, including bars and pubs, was justified on the basis of harm caused by passive smoking to workers in these spaces. Critics have complained that the evidence for passive-smoking risks are weak. They are right, but what is significant is that the policy had to be justified in these terms. The principle of personal autonomy was sufficiently respected that smoking bans had to invoke a nominal harm caused to others. The ‘harm principle’ – most famously associated with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty – retained some validity:

‘That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’

The crucial shift occurred in the past 10 years, when health policy moved into a position of direct coercion, preventing a person from smoking for his or her ‘own good’. People are now forced to give up smoking if they are in a mental-health unit or a prison, or if they are in hospital and unable to leave the hospital site. Some employees – for example, of health services – are prevented from smoking for the duration of the working day or while travelling to or from work. These restrictions are imposed for a person’s ‘own good’: the ban is presented as an act of charity, to improve their health and enable them to live longer (and happier / wealthier) lives.

Yet the 2006 smoking ban did not stretch into places of residence. It was considered that a person should have the right to do as they please in their home, even a temporary home, and even if they were a ward of the state. The right of a person to exercise some autonomy in a private space was still recognised. Such niceties have now gone, as if entirely forgotten, and 90 per cent of mental-health trusts now prohibit smoking everywhere, including in outdoor areas.

Smoking policy is also intervening directly into everyday norms and public standards of acceptability. New bans on smoking in outdoor public places such as parks and beaches are justified to prevent smokers setting a bad example to young people. England’s chief medical officer has said that she supports outdoor bans that reduced ‘active smoking and its role modelling in front of children’. Other bans claim to ‘denormalise’ smoking: the head of Public Health England wrote in 2017 that all-hospital site smoking bans were ‘about creating a “new normal”’. Here, public authorities use coercion to mould what is considered normal, and to regulate the role models we provide for one another.

Smoking regulation is not unique, however – I have seen a similar shift in every area of policy I have worked on as a civil-liberties campaigner, including restrictions placed on the homeless, football supporters, or young people. For example, a homeless person is no longer considered to have the right to refuse a hostel place; they are issued with fines and other penalties ‘for their own good’, to force them to accept the authorities’ view of what is in their best interest.

The shift towards direct coercion in these very different areas of life is due to the development of a new ‘officious’ state. Public bodies have been detached from public pressure and assent: the state becomes isolated, like a structure floating on top of society, endowed with its own agency and values. People become material; they are something that policy is done to. Coercion loses its offensive quality, and it can be imposed as an act of charity, as with heretics in the Middle Ages, to save someone from their own wrongheadedness or unwise course of action.

In some ways, smokers are the canaries for civil liberties. Measures applied to smokers are now being considered in areas such as food and drink, including display bans for alcohol, and health warnings or plain packaging for ‘junk food’. One feature of the new officious state is the transplanting of policy from one domain to another in a ‘copy and paste’ manner, since policy draws inspiration from the policy realm and not the specificities of an activity or a constituency.

Today, different social groups have a common interest in collaborating to defend the realms of personal autonomy and civic freedoms, as the state moves increasingly to take these over. This cause unites smoker and non-smoker, homeless and well-housed – because another person’s freedom is our freedom, too.

Josie Appleton is author of 40 Years of Hurt: The Hyper-Regulation of Smokers 1979-2019, published today by Forest. She is director of the Manifesto Club civil-liberties group and the author of Officious – Rise of the Busybody State.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Linda Payne

5th August 2019 at 12:25 pm

I would like to know how they have managed to implement no smoking on mental health wards. When I was a patient nearly everyone smoked including the staff and quite often the alarm would go off if a patient lit up in his room; considering that you have to be really ill to warrant admission taking away their right to smoke is cruel, I imagine many turn to e cigarettes but the choice has been taken away and personal choice should be paramount here

Ian Wilson

5th August 2019 at 11:33 am

The article made me think about the imposition of ‘state’ dictat on other aspects of our lives, such as the stupid sugar tax, Scotlands minimum alcohol pricing etc.

What happened to making a decision and living by the consequences? Does the state think we can’t make our own decisions anymore.

Any party that truly pushes the “small government” agenda gets my vote. That way we have fewer civil servants telling us how to live our lives, as they have actual useful stuff to do.

Puddy Cat

5th August 2019 at 10:11 am

It always seemed odd that office workers were made to smoke outside their place of work thus advertising the fact that adults smoke. Now we have any trace of smoke or even clouds of water vapour from chimneys portrayed as immanent danger. My wife died of lung cancer, never smoked and, until contracting the awful plague, was as fit as a fiddle. The general drift is that eating recommended foods, exercising in that demented fashion and not living in a city will help you to what, live forever? Longevity is not all its cracked up to be and there are plenty of bone, muscle, scrofulous conditions waiting to make your life a misery. Hell is now the gym and accomplishments in the individual amount to the self-admiration of an attenuated physique. Strength of physique, poverty of mind.

Jerry Owen

5th August 2019 at 9:29 am

‘Smokers are the canaries for civil liberties’.. so true. They are the whipping boys ( and girls ) for those that want to control everything we eat and drink.
I have never been a smoker, and so i welcomed the banning of smoking in pubs and especially restaurants as smoking is the last thing you should have to suffer in an enclosed space whilst eating.
However it has gone way to far, I believe smoking in public should be allowed, I can always circumnavigate my way around smokers. You cannot have a free society whereby no one is affected by the activities of others .. give and take I think it’s called. be sensible and considerate, that is all that is needed.
As a non smoker I defend the right for others to smoke in public spaces but not enclosed public spaces.

adrian lord

5th August 2019 at 8:25 am

Liberty and freedom are rarely heard words these days, especially from millennials and younger people. It is as if the pseudo-freedom of the internet sates them such that real-world liberty and freedom of choice simply don’t matter, numbed as they all are by the opiate of social media.

Another factor promoting this authoritarian turn is the outsourcing of regulation and control from the elected state itself to myriad one step removed quangos, stuffed full of the political equivalent of Blairite accountants.

Stephen J

5th August 2019 at 8:02 am

The root of this problem lays with the post-war Attlee government. In 1944 the wartime government was strapped for cash, so it introduced a system of tax collection on the whole population, it was called PAYE.

From that point onwards, the socialists saw their opening, and the great squeeze of normal workers began. The point was to build a new bunch of workers in the image of the brave folk of the USSR, a project which is still ongoing, despite the break up of their ideal model.

Anyway, PAYE eventually turns the free people into a client people who depend on a bunch of people whose entire existence is managed through the organised theft of their money, their pride, their ambition and any wealth that they might have accrued from their parents.

Hana Jinks

5th August 2019 at 7:27 am

Another outstanding story to start the new week.

The only way to end this insanity is to stop voting for any party that is endorsed in any way by msm. Find the Independent in your area with views and policies that are representative of you, because there will be one there. The other creeps all think that they are rulers, as opposed to servants.

Sean McGrath

5th August 2019 at 3:11 am

Presuming the author sees public smoking is OK, I’m curious to see what she (or anyone else) thinks about:-
a) public alcohol consumption
b) public swearing
c) public nudity
d) public sexual behaviour
etc. Personally, the one I find most distasteful is public smoking as the smell is so disgusting.

Jerry Owen

5th August 2019 at 9:32 am

Sean Mcgrath
A nice easy one ..
Answers to A,B,C and D.. none affect your health.. next ?

Melissa Jackson

5th August 2019 at 11:30 am

You seriously find public smoking more objectionable than public anal fisting? Really?

There is no reasonable objection to the first two examples, or to smoking. It’s up to you to avoid them if you care to. But that’s your choice, and it cannot be argued that merely seeing such things is a harm to anyone. Same for smoking. These are normal every day activities, and you aren’t harmed by seeing them.

The question of nudity and sexuality is more complex. Is some filthy old man flashing his genitals at passing children considered harmful? I think almost everyone would say yes. This is not a “think of the children” argument either. I think most grown women, myself included, would say that they object in the strongest possible terms to having strangers genitals waved at us. We would consider that to be some form of sexual harassment, and call the police.

This is an argument for personal autonomy. People have a right to not have your genitals imposed on them, especially your genitals superimposed with someone else’s.

There isn’t a corollary here. Your consent and autonomy is violated by being forced to be part of someone else’s sexual activity. It is not to see people doing things that you dislike.

Jerry Owen

5th August 2019 at 12:02 pm

Melissa Jackson
This article is about smoking.. you appear to have a bit of a ‘willie phobia’ !

Hana Jinks

5th August 2019 at 2:34 pm

Pls stop being a nazi, Jerry.

Melissa. Jerry used to get pretty uptight about some of the things that l said, too.

Hana Jinks

5th August 2019 at 3:17 pm


Neither Melissa or l would ever have dreamt of speaking the way we do, even as recently as five years ago. We do it for effect. It’s gotten that lame.

David Margison

5th August 2019 at 5:49 pm

A good reply, I would like to add that there are millions of people who like myself suffer from Astha and allergies, the ban on smoking in pubs, restaurants and othe public places was liberating, pasive smoking does have a terrible effect on the health of non smokers. Not to mention the stink on your clothes the next day. As a matter of interest, I used to repair televisions, part of my job included cleaning screens of the build up of tar that covered them, it was disgusting, how anyone can say harm from passive smoking is debatable I do not know. It would be interesting to know if Josie Appletone is a smoker

David Margison

5th August 2019 at 6:36 pm

Ahh I see how it works, my initial reply was for Seans post. Where it appears doesn’t make it look that way. I don’t like to see friendly discussion degenerate. Melissa Jacksons rediculous use of unrelated sexual reference used only to shock has really destroyed the tone of this discussion.
“Melissa Jackson
5th August 2019 at 11:30 am

You seriously find public smoking more objectionable than public anal fisting? Really?

There is no reasonable objection to the first two examples, or to smoking. It’s up to you to avoid them if you care to”

And the assertion that It’s up to me to avoid smokers is laughable, would I be responsible for being in the wrong place if I was attacked?
I notice Hana Jinks has thrown the word Nazi into the mix, you clearly have no concept of what a Nazi was, you insult the people who suffered under them

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 11:50 am

Jerry Oven-Kraut is an actual nazi, David.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 11:51 am

And stop being such a soppy nazi, David.

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