Why we shouldn’t ban smoking in public places

by Stephen Tall on January 25, 2005

As a liberal I don’t believe governments – local or national – should intrude into an individual’s lifestyle choice unless it can be proven that that choice is harming other people’s lives.

The obvious retort from the health lobby, and there are many Lib Dems among their number, is that passive smoking is demonstrably harmful. They may be correct. Too few medical studies have yet reached that definitive conclusion to prove it either right or wrong.

But that still leaves open the precautionary approach: until we know for certain let’s ban smoking in public places now to make sure it cannot hurt anyone. I’d have a lot more respect for this argument, though, if it were followed through to its logical conclusion.

Let’s assume passive smoking kills. Answer me this question: “Do you think the occasional waft of smoke inhaled down the pub is more likely to harm society than a child who lives with two chain-smoking parents?”
Of course it won’t. Children and adults are far more at risk from constant exposure to smoking in private places than they are from occasional dalliance with smoking in public places.

If we were serious as a society about wanting to cut the number of smoking-related deaths in this country we wouldn’t distract the issue by going for the cop-out option of banning smoking in public places. We’d stick our necks out and say smoking should be banned. Full stop. In public and in private places alike.

But very few people do argue that. For two reasons: first, because there are too many smokers in this country for it to be politically possible. And, secondly, because we know prohibition won’t work. Any more than it did in 1920s’ America.

Or any more than we are winning the war against those drugs which we have (quirkily and arbitrarily) declared to be illegal.

Or any more than banning fox-hunting addresses the issue of animal cruelty compared to the intensive battery farming which gives us all lower-cost food.

Nor is there a need for a new law against smoking in public places. An increasing number of pubs, cafes and restaurants (which, in any case, are private businesses not public places) are voluntarily declaring themselves ‘smokeless zones’. It is no longer the case that people are forced to endure smoky atmospheres; they can simply take their custom elsewhere.

I believe that every time governments impose a law designed to compel individuals to improve their health – whether they like it or not – we make the individual less responsible for their own actions. But a functioning liberal society depends on individuals taking full responsibility for their lives.

A ban on smoking in public places will have a negligible effect on the number of deaths from smoking.

So we should stop kidding ourselves that this is a serious health proposal. It’s not. It’s simply a half-hearted gesture. A Silk Cut Ultra argument dressed up as a Capston Full Strength measure.