14 August 2009

No smoke without ire

Save Our Pubs and Clubs

I’ve been thinking of writing something along these lines since I first heard that there’s a campaign to amend the smoking ban, and I do so in the full knowledge that about three out of four of you are quite likely to disapprove of it.

Apart from Gordon Brown’s disgraceful attack on pension funds after becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997, there are two other reasons why I hope Labour is voted out of office at the next election: one is the extremism of their total ban smoking in public places and the other is their ill-intentioned banning of hunting with hounds (which is not my topic for today).

As far as smoking is concerned, I don’t have any objection at all to banning it in restaurants. But I can see no rational justification for banning pubs, clubs, hotels, airport terminals, etc. from providing specially allocated smoking rooms (fitted, of course, with state of the art extractor fans and located a ‘safe’ distance away from non-smoking rooms).

The irrationality of the total ban has been highlighted, unsurprisingly, by market forces, as the rate at which pubs are closing down continues at a relentless and unprecedented rate.


My first encounter with the kind of draconian discrimination against smokers we now suffer in the UK came when I was trying to find somewhere to stay in California’s Napa Valley.

One hotel’s website announced that a $500 surcharge would be added to the credit card of anyone found smoking not just inside the building, but anywhere within its grounds. My response was to send them an email pointing out that I’d obviously been completely misled by some of America’s core PR boasts on its own behalf, most notably:

(1) the USA’s oft-repeated claim to be the world’s leading example of individual freedom and liberty (for more on which, see also HERE) and

(2) the USA’s related claim to be the world’s leading proponent of market economics – which is hardly consistent with rational entrepreneurs voluntarily opting to reduce their sales by excluding (or deterring) 25% of the potential market.

Needless to say, they didn’t reply, and we made the economically rational decision to stay at another hotel in the Napa Valley, where smoking was permitted on a terrace in the garden.

A few days later, we signed in at a hotel in San Francisco, self-proclaimed and widely recognized as the most liberal of all American cities. But the only sign of it being any more liberal than the Napa Valley hoteliers was the lower credit charge surcharge of a mere $250 for smoking inside the building.


Several years later, and a day or two after the smoking ban came into force in the UK, we stayed at a hotel on the Dorset coast, where there was a large humidor displaying a fine range of Cuban cigars that could have kept Winston Churchill going for a quite a few weeks.

Fortunately, the August weather was mild enough for me to indulge in one with a glass of Cognac after dinner – outside on the terrace. But what if it had been raining and what if had been in December?

The full force of our government’s enlightened legislation began to strike home. The long-standing tradition of rounding off dinner with a relaxing and luxurious treat had been consigned to the past. It was now illegal, except when the weather’s fine enough to sit outside (or unless you're one of the privileged few who can drink in a bar in the Houses of Parliament).

So hotels like this will presumably have put their humidors and their valuable contents on E-bay, as the time it takes to enjoy a good cigar means that a quick puff or two in the car park is a pointless and irrationally expensive exercise (market forces strike again).


Last week, however, we stayed at a delightful hotel that had come up with as good a compromise as I’ve seen so far. Although I very much hope that their imaginative investment will bring them the financial rewards they deserve, I’m not going to reveal its name or where it is – for the simple reason that, if their local district council’s ‘smoking solutions officer’ (sic) is anything like ours, this particular smoking shelter would almost certainly be written off for being far too comfortable, not draughty enough and therefore illegal.

Next to the terrace they had built a tastefully designed summerhouse equipped with comfortable chairs, heating, lighting, tables and ashtrays. At first sight, the notice on the door saying ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’ suggested it was off-limits to guests.

But it wasn’t, and I presume that the point of the notice was to define anyone in there as a private guest who had been invited into this particular piece of private property by its owners, who also happened to be the private owners of the hotel.

Whether or not it was technically ‘legal’ under existing legislation, I have my doubts. But I don’t know and don’t care – because it was such a welcome blast from the past to be able puff away, have a gin and tonic and inspect the menu at the same time – and, thanks to the heating arrangements, it would have been just as comfortable in December as it was in August.

What’s more, and this really is the point, the solution was as acceptable to me as it presumably was to other guests who chose not to sit in the Puffin room.

The Campaign to Amend the Smoking Ban is not campaigning to abolish the smoking ban. It is not campaigning to return things to where they were before the Act. Nor is it campaigning for the right to inflict smoke on recipients who have no choice in the matter.

It is, however, campaigning for arrangements that would allow greater freedom of choice for everyone, a by-product of which might actually help to preserve another long standing British tradition by slowing down the alarming rate of pub closures.

For more details, visit the Amend the Smoking Ban website, where there is complete freedom of choice as to whether or not to sign up.


Paul said...

Like you, I am broadly in favour of some form of smoking ban, but I do worry, more than I worry about the civil liberties issue (though I am concerned for the pub trade) that there are other unintended negative consequences that are not being sufficiently taken into account.

Specifically, research from the US shows: “that smoking bans in public places can perversely increase the exposure of non-smokers to tobacco smoke by displacing smokers to private places where they contaminate non smokers, and in particular young children."

Further the report goes on to suggest that, overall: "higher taxes are an efficient way to decrease exposure to tobacco smoke, especially in those most exposed"

See http://www.aeaweb.org/annual_mtg_papers/2007/0106_1015_0601.pdf for the full paper.

I'm not claiming that this is watertight evidence of a need for a more flexible approach to the smoking ban, for example by charging venues that want to allow smoking for (informed adults) and then ringfencing that money for some of the new 'air exchange' technologies available in industry but not used in commercial premises.

However, and again (I think) like you, I would like to see more rigorous evaluation of the real impact, positive and otherwise, of the ban before we all put our feet up and say 'job done'.

(ps Came to your blog via bloggers' circle)

Angus Willson said...

I think society's turn against smoking is a significant advance in our attitudes and behaviour. It can be added to seat-belts and drink-driving as examples of an agreed adjustment to acceptable norms.

Previous generations agreed to ban slavery, stop child-labour, give votes to women...

junican said...


What is very weird to me is how people have come to accept that 'second hand tobacco smoke' is harmful; that is, assuming that you are not incarcerated in a room with no ventilation and subjected to a massive concentraton of smoke (of any kind) 24/7.

It really is not very long ago that aircraft seats had a little ashtrays built into the armrest. People who enjoyed tobacco did so - no one, to my knowledge, ever complained. However, if ever there was a circumstance where burning objects should be banned, it would surely be on aircraft. But, if that is true, why was smoking ever allowed on aircraft? It can only be that the risk was so small and so negligible that aircraft safety experts came to the conclusion that it was up to the individual airlines to decide whether or not to allow the enjoyment of tobacco on their flights.

Having accepted that the risk of burning tobacco is not a safety issue on aircraft, why did the airlines not recognise that there was a 'health issue' about, say, 200 people being cooped up together in an aircraft cabin and being exposed to tobacco smoke (including those who were enjoying their tobacco)? The obvious answer is that their ventilation systems were adequate to deal with ANY airborne polutants, more or less.

Therefore, reviewing the situation, say, five, six, seven years ago, even in the most dire of circumstances, there was not seen to be any significant danger.

How has it now come to be that, even in the most innocuous of circumstances (eg. a railway station platform), enjoying a bit of tobacco has become tantamount to GREVIOUS BODILY HARM?

I will say why this situation came to pass, in my opinion.

1. Patricia Hewitt (and Caroline Flint) decided that they were going to make their mark on history, right or wrong.

2. The other members of the cabinet, at the time (HEALTH being paramount) did not have the courage to deny them, because -

3. The STATISTICS said that PH and CF were right.

HOWEVER, the statistics are wrong. Or, rather, the statistics are INACCURATE.

A seriously important source (US Health Dept? I do not know, exactly) said that, in the US, 3000 lives could be saved by stopping passive smoking. Patricia Hewitt is on record as saying that, in England, 3000 lives could be saved by stopping passive smoking. But, the population of the US is four times the population of England. How, therefore, is it possible for these two figures to be equal? It makes no sense.

The fact of the matter is that the statistics on passive smoking are so inaccurate that you might as well say that passive smoking is GOOD FOR YOU as say that it is BAD FOR YOU. One must understand that all these statistics have a 'margin of error'. In the case of passive smoking, the margin of error is such that what I have said above is true. THERE IS NO PROOF AT ALL THAT PASSIVE SMOKING IS HARMFUL. IN FACT, FROM THE STATISTICS, THERE IS EVERY REASON TO BELIEVE THAT PASSIVE SMOKING IS A GOOD THING in that Nicotine protects against Altzheimers, etc.

In the history of mankind, there have been two opposing situations:

1. ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE. EG. Gilileo's observation that the Earth goes around the Sun (not accurate, I know, but it will do)

2. UNREASONED BELIEF. EG. The Catholic Church's (nothing against the Catholic Church - I am a caholic) insistence that the bible says that the Sun goes around the Earth.

I saw a statement from a representative of the Scottish Government who said that 50 persons who work in the hospitality industry had died in the last year as a result of people enjoying tobacco. 500.000 people die in this country every year. Which 50 was she talking about?

I am sorry to go on at such length, but, in this case, the devil is most definitely in the detail.