Jun 2007

The UK public smoking ban

In less than a week (July 1st 2007), England and Wales will follow the lead of Scotland, Ireland and a whole host of other places in banning tobacco-smoking in enclosed public places. Neil Clark has a piece in today’s Comment Is Free — Liberal England: Going Up in Smoke (also reproduced on his blog) — which attacks this ban as illiberal. He goes as far as to state that “the first country to introduce bans on smoking in public was the Third Reich” and asks:

Isn’t it sad that 60 years after playing a decisive role in the defeat of the Nazis and their loathsome, intolerant ideology, Britain, in its illiberal attitude towards smoking and smokers, is now aping them?

All very dramatic, I think you’ll agree. Albeit inaccurate. But what sort of journalist lets accuracy get in the way of a good turn of phrase? In fact, tobacco has been periodically banned outright and subject to numerous restrictions on where it can and can’t be consumed ever since it arrived in Europe. As far back as 1590, tobacco was the subject of a public ban. Then, in the 1670s, around the same time as England was trying to stamp out the practice of tobacco smoking by levying massive taxation on a weed “lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse”, there were areas of central Europe where the sale and distribution of tobacco was punishable by death.

But it’s not Neil’s factual inaccuracies that I want to address. Indeed it’s not so much what the piece says in attacking the ban, as what it fails to say, that really interests me. By painting the ban as an example of Big Oppressive Government Vs. The Little Guy, the article succeeds in framing the issue in completely spurious terms and fails to mention — even once — the actual reasons why the ban is being introduced.

Protecting The Little Guy

I think it’s now fairly uncontroversial to state that, whether or not your lips physically make contact with the cigarette, inhaling tobacco smoke carries long-term health risks. Indeed, if you were to ask any GP in the country, I feel certain you would be informed that avoiding second-hand smoke was highly advisable. This means — and here we have the crux of the matter, blithely overlooked by Neil Clark — that if you’re a bar-worker, you are forced into a choice: you can ignore the best medical advice we have, or you can lose your pay-cheque.

There is no liberal case whatsoever for the ban; if you support it you may be many things, but please, don’t have the audacity to call yourself a liberal. The argument for restricting smoking in public on account of the possible health risks caused by passive smoking is an argument for having separate smoking areas in pubs, cafes and restaurants and not for a blanket ban, which will encompass even private clubs where members have assented to a pro-smoking policy.

It seems that living in “a liberal society” means insisting that the — largely minimum-wage-earning — service sector must inhale Mr. Clark’s tobacco smoke or find another job.

But of course it means nothing of the sort. Despite the imperious insistence that supporters of the ban shouldn’t call themselves “liberal”, I find myself in exactly that position. I support the ban, and I am a liberal. My liberalism — unlike, it seems, that of others — doesn’t stretch to damaging the health of the waiters, bartenders and cleaners who have no choice (assuming they want to keep the job that’s feeding and housing them) but to share my space… yes, even in those “private clubs where members have assented to a pro-smoking policy”. Or do the members of these clubs do the cleaning and serving too?

But what if the staff assent to a pro-smoking policy too? Well, in theory that’s all well and good but it ignores the fact that the employer-employee relationship is a power-relationship. Like it or not, there would be plenty of unscrupulous pub and café owners willing to put pressure on their staff to sign a “smoking waiver”, perhaps in the knowledge that there are few other jobs in the local area, and plenty of unemployed smokers willing to fill the position. Neil Clark — and the others who, in the name of liberalism, propose exemptions — are proposing a society where an employer, when hiring, may discriminate in favour of those applicants willing to sign a document waiving their right to a working environment free of unnecessary health risks (a right under British law for decades, incidentally)…

Section 2(2)(e) of the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) places a specific duty on the employer in respect of employees to provide and maintain a safe working environment which is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work.

It seems to me that employers; merely by allowing, let alone “requiring”, employees to work in a smoke-filled environment are already breaking the law. By enforcing a workplace smoking ban, the government is merely enforcing existing legislation designed, very specifically, to protect the powerless from the powerful.

It’s like when I read columnists or bloggers opposing rises in petrol duty or car tax by claiming that “it’ll hit the poorest the most”. All the while ignoring the fact that the poorest 20% of the population don’t actually own cars and would be far better served by a high car tax that directly reduced the cost of public transport. Similarly, those opposed to the workplace smoking ban who claim to be the powerless victims of government action, are conveniently overlooking the fact that the ban is aimed precisely at preventing them imposing their damaging smoke on people whose power to avoid that smoke is severely curtailed.

Posted in: Opinion