Last Saturday was the tenth anniversary of the introduction in England of a ban on smoking in enclosed public workplaces. I had a walk-on part in the drama of the ban: as a clerk on the House of Commons Health Committee, I drafted its report on the Government’s proposed legislation, which made a number of recommendations, largely for a more comprehensive and draconian ban, without the exemptions the Government had intended to enshrine in the law.
Initially, while of course I treated my work impartially, I was against the ban. I am by instinct a libertarian, and I bridled at the idea of the state telling people what to do, albeit for their own good, and I particularly rebelled at the notion of prohibiting the use of an otherwise-legal product. This, it seemed to me, was a weaselly formulation. We will continue to allow the sale and use of tobacco, and collect considerable income from it, but we will direct how, when and where it is to be used. That seemed a form of chicanery to me.
The Committee represented a wide range of political opinion, and there was at first no unanimity on whether banning smoking in public was a good thing or not. The Chair, Sir Kevin Barron, a lay member of the GMC, was passionately in favour of a prohibition. It was his pet project and he was fortunate that the Government had put it on the table so early in his chairmanship. There was equivocation in Whitehall as well as Westminster. When John Reid, as Health Secretary, had unveiled the proposals, it was obvious he was skeptical, and he fretted publicly about denying the poor one of their few pleasures in life. Exemptions were planned, to soften the blow. In the summer of 2005, however, Dr Reid was replaced by the prim and nannyish Patricia Hewitt, who demonstrated much more on-message zeal about the project.
The draft legislation was only for a partial ban on smoking. At one point, pubs which didn’t serve food – known in the trade as “wet-led” – were to be exempted from the law, as were members-only clubs, from the Travellers’ on Pall Mall to Trimdon Working Men’s Club. There was much discussion of the idea of enclosed smoking rooms, and of the efficacy and technology of ventilation systems. The British Beer and Pub Association warned of dire effects on the industry, of jobs lost, income falling and pubs closing (some of which, even the anti-smoking lobby must admit, has come to pass).
The Committee took a great deal of evidence, and visited Dublin, where a ban had been introduced in 2004, a world first. For those of us who were, shall we say, not unfamiliar with public houses, the difference was quite striking. I’m not a smoker, beyond the occasional cigar, and I’m asthmatic, but I confess that smoky bars and pubs had never really bothered me before, partly, I suppose, because they just seemed an inevitable feature of going out for a drink. Being parachuted into an atmosphere (literally) where there was no smoke was a disconcerting and unfamiliar experience.
If I can crudely paraphrase the complicated arguments for and against a ban, they boiled down to personal freedom versus public health. There are still naysayers, but the epidemiology of second-hand smoke is compelling. Studies of non-smokers who are married to non-smokers show considerably higher rates of heart disease, respiratory problems and a whole smorgasbord of cancers. I’m sorry, but they just do. It would be an odd quirk of nature indeed if inhaling tar, nicotine and all the other lovelies directly from your cigarette was bad for your health but inhaling the smoke from other people’s cigarettes was entirely benign. Still the members of the Committee worried away at reconciling the arguments. Eventually, it was something we learned in Ireland that tipped the balance.
Banning smoking in the workplace was not primarily an issue of public health or personal freedom. It was about health and safety. To allow smoking where people were working was knowingly to avoid a proven health danger. And that was simply unacceptable. You couldn’t say that a barman in a pub which served food had a right to protection from a toxin, but a waiter in a gentlemen’s club did not. It didn’t make sense. So there could be no partial ban.
The Committee’s conclusion was unequivocal. “Since secondhand smoke is a danger to workers’ health, all workers, especially bar staff who are most at risk, deserve protection. Bar staff should not have to suffer conditions which are unsafe and avoidable. The Government should introduce a comprehensive ban which includes all pubs and clubs which employ staff.”
What do I feel, ten years on from the ban? Reluctantly but conclusively, my mind was changed. The Government had no choice but to ban smoking. Do I regret that I cannot relax with a cigar and a martini in my favourite bars? Yes, absolutely. But I also recognise that such regret is essentially selfish. I’m making a choice by smoking a cigar. The staff in the bar cannot be said to be making such a choice.
Undoubtedly pub culture has changed. There have been negative effects, of course. Something of the order of 7,000 or 8,000 pubs have closed over the past 10 years, though the availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets is a major cause as well as the smoking ban. It is also true that some smoky bars were masking with second-hand smoke equally unpleasant, if less dangerous, odours from other sources. It must be frustrating for smokers, who are, after all, addicts, to have to go outside every so often, away from their friends, to feed their addiction. But the evidence seems to suggest that the effect on public health has been substantial. Rates of smoking-related cancers are down, and the uptake of smoking has reduced, especially among the young. (One unexpected benefit: we learned in Dublin that Ireland’s ban had resulted in a bonanza for the patio heater industry.)
In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter if you were or are for or against the ban. It became an inevitability. And where Ireland led, dozens of countries have followed. Even Italy banned smoking in enclosed public spaces! Russia! France! So to regret the legislation is as futile as regretting the weather. It is what it is, and smokers must make, and largely have made, their accommodation with it.
For what it’s worth, I’m against plain packaging of cigarettes, but that’s for another day.