One of my active Twitter followers is a chap called Fennaldo, who gives his location as North County Dublin in Ireland, although he also says he is a part-owner of Cork City FC. I understand that he is a smoker, so I was perhaps a little surprised to see this tweet from him:
Everyone is entitled to their own views, even if they are intellectually inconsistent, but I can’t help thinking that the Nanny State agenda is not one from which you can pick and choose while maintaining any claim of a logical stance. “First they came for the smokers” and all that. If you value the freedom to do the things you like, you need to support others’ freedom to do the things they like, even if you find them distasteful.
In the sidebar it says that I “walk a tightrope between libertarianism and conservatism”, which I would say is a fair summary. I’m certainly no libertarian in the Murray Rothbard sense, but I do firmly believe that the basic starting point of official policy should be that adults should be allowed to live their lives as they see fit, as long as their actions do not impinge on others. Your person is your own property, not the State’s.
This view was famously expressed by the great Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty.
But Mill, who was a very wise man, recognised that, while there should be a presumption in favour of individual freedom, people do not exist in isolation and the impact of their actions on others cannot be ignored. The definition of where the line of “harm” should be drawn is a subjective one and has varied over the years following changes in the overall climate of opinion.
He drew a distinction between “offence” and “harm”. There are many things that we may find personally annoying or distasteful, but don’t actually do us any meaningful harm. Therefore these should be outside the scope of any government action, unless pursued to a degree that is covered by more general laws against harassment and nuisance. I don’t like drinking in pubs where there are howling infants, but I wouldn’t dream of wanting this to be outlawed purely for my own convenience. On the other hand, business owners may well feel that having a choice of child-friendly and child-free areas maximises their trade. And government could decide that, for their own protection, children should be kept out of wet-only bars, just as they are excluded from betting shops.
The same applies to smoking in indoor public places. Yes, many find it pretty unpleasant, which is a good reason for business owners to provide non-smoking areas. But there is no conclusive evidence that it imposes any meaningful harm on customers who may expose themselves to it for a few hours a week. Sir Richard Doll, the eminent scientist who first demonstrated the link between smoking and lung cancer, is on record as saying that he personally wasn’t particularly concerned about second-hand smoke. Nobody has a right to be protected from others doing things they just find irritating.
And, even if we assume there is some demonstrable low-level harm (which I do not), then why should we prevent adults from knowingly accepting that risk in pursuit of a good time? After all, we let them play rugby, ride horses, and engage in promiscuous unprotected sex, all of which are much more conclusively proven to increase health risks. If someone wants to have a drink with their friends in a smoky bar-room, in the full knowledge that it might lead to a slightly elevated risk, then what business is it of government to stop them?
It could be argued that there is a need to protect children, who may have no choice in the matter, and adults in locations which they need to visit for essential purposes. That might be a valid reason for requiring the default in cafés, restaurants and public areas such as station and airport concourses to be non-smoking, but it would still not preclude the provision of separate adults-only smoking areas.
And there is absolutely no way Mill would have remotely approved of the current blanket smoking ban. Even given the caveats expressed above, there can be no freedom-loving argument against allowing smoking in physically separate rooms, open only to adults, where there is no bar counter and no table service. What harm does that do to any others? Nobody has to go in a wet-only bar unless they willingly choose to.
(For the avoidance of doubt, this post does not address the question of risks of environmental tobacco smoke to workers)