Smoking ban: why did we have to wait for so long?

I read, with interest, that a group calling themselves “Freedom To Choose” intends to launch a Judicial Review to challenge the government over the smoking ban. They claim that the ban contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights. Presumably, the human right that they are claiming is the right of smokers to choose what they do to their own bodies – arguing that smokers and non-smokers should both have the freedom to choose to patronise establishments according to their individual smoking policy.

There is a whole host of reasons stated by opponents of the ban, as to why they think it is a bad idea. However, listening to these reasons it is clear that these people are either partially or completely missing the point.

Many oppose the ban because they are fearful that this country is turning into an Orwellian “nanny state”, where more and more things are banned and the government is watching our every move. However, there is a clear difference between, for example, not being able to go anywhere without being recorded on CCTV; or it being made compulsory to carry around an ID card when you only want to go out for a walk – and legitimate laws which are put in place to protect people from the harmful actions of others. Do we also complain of a “nanny state” because murder is illegal? One of the most important functions of any government is to protect the people whom it serves: and with the ban on smoking in enclosed public places, the government has taken a very important step towards realising that goal.

But then, some opponents cry: “there’s been no conclusive proof that passive smoking causes death”. Evidently trying to negate the whole issue by claiming that passive smoking is not harmful in the first place. Such claims merely serve to show how little smokers really understand the discomfort of non-smokers in their vicinity. To be quite honest, it does not matter so much whether passive smoking is harmful or not. Even if it were conclusively proven that passive smoking caused no harm whatsoever to one’s health, the fact remains that tobacco smoke smells extremely foul to many people: foul enough to make them choke and be forced to move away. How would the pro-smoking lobby feel if they frequently found themselves being subjected to flatulence under their noses? It continues to amaze, how the majority of smokers are unable or unwilling to understand precisely how unpleasant their habit is to those who are near them.

Another argument used by those who wish the ban to be reversed is that carbon monoxide, in the form of vehicle exhaust, is also toxic and unpleasant to breathe: and therefore if smoking is banned then cars on the roads should also be banned. This is a non-argument, because it completely misses the point. Smoking is not being banned altogether, but just in enclosed public places. People do not tend to run their cars in enclosed public places – but if they did, then we can be pretty sure that there would be a law made against that too. There is simply no comparison here.

Then there are those ask what’s wrong with having separate areas in pubs for smokers, which are well ventilated. Area segregation has long been in place in many establishments, and it does not work for two main reasons: firstly, it is rare to find a place which is well-ventilated enough for all the smoke to be immediately extracted, leaving none to drift into the non-smoking area. Secondly, “non-smoking areas” have tended to be the smaller areas which are sectioned off, leaving the rest of the pub for smokers. Often I have walked into my local pub, only to find that the non-smoking area has been cordoned off for a private function, leaving me nowhere else to go. I have promptly walked straight back out. What does the “Freedom To Choose” group propose? That a law is made, dictating precisely what ratio of the customer seating area should be given to each section? That would be too complicated and impractical: it’s much simpler to have an outright ban on smoking inside.

I have heard some opponents of the ban grasping at straws, when they claim that tobacco smoke “masks” other odours inside a pub or a nightclub; and without smoke, the atmosphere would smell of sweat, stale beer and vomit. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that most non-smokers would far rather have to endure these other smells: tobacco smoke stinks much worse! In a similar vein, there are also the people who say that if everyone gave up smoking, then the government would have to increase taxes elsewhere to compensate for the lost revenue. Well I, for one, would gladly pay increased taxes elsewhere if it meant that my world would be free of smoke.

Perhaps the most emotive and relevant argument comes from those who claim that it infringes their human rights to restrict their liberty with such a ban. People state that they should be allowed to do what they want with their own body, and no-one should be able to take that right away. However, what these people are missing is that their absolute right over their own body only applies to situations in which their actions do not affect any other people. Their rights to choose cease immediately when the smoke leaves their own personal space, and enters that of another person. Smoking differs from drinking in that other people in the vicinity of the perpetrator are directly affected by the substance in question.

I asked Simon Clark, the director of pro-smoking pressure group FOREST, if he believed that non-smokers have smoke being forced upon them whether they like it or not. His press office replied, stating that FOREST does not believe that the rights of smokers and non-smokers are incompatible. Their view is that the ban is draconian, because it even forbids a private club set up by smokers – for smokers – that non-members need never enter. I actually agree with this: as long as non-smokers never have to be exposed to smoke, then there should be in principle nothing wrong with smokers having their own private members’ clubs, as long as their sole raison d’ętre is for smokers to socialise – and not, for example, another purpose which might otherwise attract non-smoking members who would then have to endure the polluted atmosphere.

As unfair and draconian as the ban may be, given the above example, the fact remains that for many years, non-smokers have had to suffer – largely in silence – while smokers have had their way. The boot’s simply on the other foot now: call it payback if you will. The other week, I was waiting for a bus when I saw a man sit down next to a family which included a baby in a pushchair. He then started smoking, with no questions asked. As an observer, my blood started to boil – and I would have said something, but for the realisation that such a person who has a total disregard for the safety, comfort and human rights of those around him, might also be the sort of person who is not opposed to physical violence.

Smokers should take careful note of the following. If every smoker had always been considerate towards every other person in their vicinity – taking great care to ask everyone in the room if they minded before they smoked, and respecting others’ wishes – then there would have been no problem, and no need for a legally-enforced ban. It’s only due to the selfishness and lack of consideration of most smokers, that a ban has had to be enforced. Inconsiderate smokers have brought it upon themselves.

Non-smokers really have been suffering in silence like this for a long time – and that is why the law is needed. I eagerly anticipate the day when the ban is extended to include bus shelters, or indeed any public place where people may be carrying out their daily business. Non-smokers should be able to go for their entire day without having the foulness of tobacco smoke inflicted upon them in any way.

Chris Melville