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.

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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.

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