At the time, the advocates of the ban were insistent that smoking was very much a special case, and there was no way it would represent the start of a slippery slope. However, as time went by, this has proved to be increasingly untrue, with more and more examples of the public health lobby seeking to extend the smoking ban template to alcohol, soft drinks and “unhealthy” food. As the redoubtable Christopher Snowdon has said, “It wouldn’t be possible unless cigarettes hadn’t happened first.”
It isn’t simply a case of the ban having a devastating effect on pubs, and setting a precedent for other areas – it is grossly objectionable in its own right. It is a fundamentally illiberal, intolerant and hateful piece of legislation. “But,” some people say, “smoking is utterly foul. How can you tolerate it in public places?” However, that isn’t the point. There are plenty of things that other people do that I regard as extremely unpleasant, but I don’t want to see them banned so long as they don’t impinge on me.
It was already the case by the middle of 2007 that you could easily go through life without ever encountering smoking in indoor public places. It was banned on trains and buses, in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, and in workplaces was generally confined to separate rooms. Pretty much all restaurants and food-led pubs were either predominantly non-smoking, or had a large non-smoking section.
Realistically, the only place you were likely to encounter it was in the drinking sections of pubs and bars, and even there, if it mattered sufficiently to you, it was much easier to find a non-smoking area than the antismokers now claim. Various compromises short of a full ban were proposed, but none were judged acceptable. But anything that allowed the continuation of some amount of indoor smoking, even if just confined to some areas of some pubs, would have been better than nothing. I’ve often thought that a reasonable compromise would have been to ban smoking in any areas of pubs where under-18s were admitted, which would in effect have killed two birds with one stone!
What is astonishing, though, is how so many people who claim to stand up for pubs still cling doggedly to their support of the ban, in the face of all the evidence of wholesale pub closures and the extension of the principle to alcohol. It would be welcome if they could say “Well, I was in favour of the ban back in 2007, but the effects have been far worse than I expected. With hindsight, surely some kind of compromise solution would have been better.” I don’t expect you to lift a finger to campaign against it, just have the decency to admit you were wrong. But people are remarkably reluctant to do that.
So, if anyone now is complaining about pub closures while still holding to the view that the ban was a good idea, their words ring completely hollow. It is an exercise in the most breathtaking and contemptible hypocrisy. Not happy with all those closed and boarded pubs? Well, if you supported the ban, you should be pleased to see them. You got what you wanted. And you have to wonder whether they will give similar misguided approval to other pieces of pub-destroying legislation that may be on the cards…
Some people will say “Well, the smoking ban was ten years ago. It’s water under the bridge now. Isn’t it time to accept it and move on?” But, if something is wrong, the passage of time doesn’t make it any less wrong. It was wrong in 2007, it is wrong now, and if it lasts a thousand years it will still be just as wrong. And it’s impossible to understand the current situation of the pub trade without recognising the damage that the ban has wrought.
I also can’t help feeling that, in an age when the expression of prejudice against others on the grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation is rightly very much frowned upon, a lot of the pent-up hatred ends up being directed at smokers, where it is considered not only acceptable but politically correct.
For further reading, here are three pieces from some of the ban’s staunchest and most outspoken opponents.
Dick Puddlecote: The Illiberal Ruinous And Pointless Smoking Ban
Christopher Snowdon: Myths and realities of the smoking ban - 10 years on
As he concludes:
When we tot up the pros and cons of the ban, we should remember the damage it has done to many local pubs and the communities that they serve. It’s true that many people dislike cigarette smoke and may well be happier that they can drink in pubs more comfortably now. But it could have been possible to accommodate changing attitudes without the absolutism of the health lobby. Better ventilation, separate smoking rooms and more could have provided a perfectly workable compromise. Instead, we’ve lost many of our boozers with little benefit to health and at a substantial cost to businesses, customers and, above all, to personal choice.