Wednesday, December 05, 2007
In tobacco veritas
This piece of mine, on why it's time to put a match to the draconian smoking ban, appears in The Guardian.
Five months on from the imposition of the draconian ban on smoking in public places in England, its negative effects are becoming more and more apparent.
For the pub and entertainment business the ban, which followed similar ones in Scotland and Wales, has proved a disaster. Last week, Enterprise Inns, the UK's second-largest pub group, warned of "closures across the industry". It has put 96 of its 2,700 pubs up for sale.
And in Wales, where a ban on smoking was introduced in April, pubs have lost an estimated 20% of their trade.
Bingo halls and working men's clubs are also feeling the pinch. In Scotland, more than 20 bingo halls have already closed since the ban was introduced; scores more are under threat of closure across Britain. Mick McGlasham, an official with the Club and Institute Union (CIU), which runs 228 working men's clubs, predicts the ban will be "the last straw" that forces clubs to close.
But the smoking bans are wrong not just because they are putting people out of jobs and adversely affecting the economy. The main objection to the anti-smoking legislation is the way it is destroying social life in Britain.
Britain's estimated 12 million smokers have a choice: they go out to a pub or club and then have to stand outside, like social outcasts, on a cold and often wet pavement every time they fancy a smoke; or they simply stay at home. Unsurprisingly, millions are opting for the latter.
It's hard to escape the conclusion of Jemma Freeman, the managing director of cigar importers Hunters and Frankau and a keen cigar smoker herself, that the government does not really want us to meet in public places any more, and would much rather we all stayed home and vegetated in front of the television instead.
Smoking is, first and foremost, a social activity. When I moved to Hungary, in the mid-1990s, the custom was still for everyone to put their packets of cigarettes on the table in the bar/cafe so that people could help themselves to whatever they wanted to smoke. It was considered the height of bad manners not to offer your tobacco around. Offering a cigarette, or a light, was a great ice-breaker, and the way in which many a friendship was forged.
It is no coincidence that in the decades in Britain during which smoking was at its peak - the 1940s and 1950s, when around 80% of the population smoked - social cohesion was also at its strongest; and no coincidence either that the decline of smoking in Britain has coincided with the atomisation of our society.
As well as destroying social life, the smoking ban also marks, as the artist David Hockney has pointed out, the death of bohemia in Britain. Bohemia without smoke simply isn't bohemia. Those looking to escape this dull, sanitised, McDonald's-ised world for a while now have to head to Paris or Brussels: the French House, in Soho, will sadly no longer suffice.
The great tragedy about the ban is that a compromise solution, one that would have respected the rights of smokers and nonsmokers alike, could so easily have been found. Instead of following the example of Ireland, which imposed a blanket ban, why couldn't we have adopted the measures favoured by our neighbours on the continent? I recently spent a week in Belgium, where smoking is allowed in all pubs, cafes and bars, but not in enclosed public spaces, such as railway stations, or establishments that sell food, unless the proprietor can provide a separate, confined smoking area. It's a solution everyone I spoke to - smokers and nonsmokers - seemed perfectly happy with.
But instead of attempting to reach a compromise, the government instead opted for an all-encompassing ban more in line with Nazi Germany (which, unsurprisingly, was the first country in the world to introduce restrictions on smoking in public) than with a supposedly liberal, democratic European nation.
It's good to report, though, that the fightback against the ban has started. A new group that aims to campaign for exemptions from the ban for pubs, clubs and bars is being formed. Expect to hear a lot more about it in the new year.
This is an issue that concerns not just smokers but everyone who wants to live in a society where compromise rules, rather than intolerance.
Let us hope that by this time next year, common sense will rule again, and Britons will once more be able to light up their cigarettes, pipes and cigars in pubs and cafes without riot police surrounding the building.