Smoking: one more freedom and a lot more votes lost

Today’s (18 Feb 06) Financial Times has an article (subscription required) headed ‘Burning resentment at smoking ban in Labour’s heartlands’:

If Labour wished to alienate supporters in its traditional heartlands, it is difficult to imagine a more effective way than presiding over a ban on smoking in working men’s clubs.  Tony Blair might be well advised to stay away from Trimdon Labour Club [working men’s club near his constituency home]. The one-time bedrock of grassroots support in his Sedgefield constituency, its members were outraged by Tuesday night’s vote to ban smoking. They had hoped that membership clubs would be excluded from the ban.

The article quotes a raft of lifelong Labour voters and members of the Northumberland Club and Institute Union as saying that they won’t vote Labour at the next election.  The manager of the Trimdon Labour Club, one of those who helped to secure the nomination as parliamentary Labour candidate for the young Tony Blair, says the ban will be a running sore as the election approaches.  "The Conservatives can gain advantage here, he warns, by talking about freedom of the individual."  

The 2005 Labour Party manifesto (pdf file) said:

We will legislate to ensure that all enclosed public places and workplaces other than licensed premises will be smoke-free.The legislation will ensure that all restaurants will be smoke-free; all pubs and bars preparing and serving food will be smoke-free; and other pubs and bars will be free to choose whether to allow smoking or to be smoke-free. In membership clubs the members will be free to choose whether to allow smoking or to be smoke-free. However, whatever the general status, to protect employees, smoking in the bar area will be prohibited everywhere. [My emphasis]

We all relished the spectacle of the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, most irritatingly patronising of all Blairite ministers, declaring in the morning ‘Today’ radio programme on the day of the Patricia HewittCommons vote on the smoking ban that she regarded private clubs as more akin to private homes than to pubs, and that she would accordingly vote to exclude them from the ban, as promised in the manifesto and as proposed in her department’s Bill: and then in the afternoon radio programme ‘PM’ we heard Ms Hewitt saying the exact opposite — and voting against her own departmental Bill’s provision to exclude private clubs from the ban.  But it begins to look as if this prime example of control freakery and Nanny-statism on the part of a priggish New Labour administration may have more serious consequences for Labour than the mere reduction of the Secretary of State for Health to a laughing-stock.

I haven’t smoked a cigarette or pipe for decades and I detest the stench made by other people smoking around me.  But it seems to me fantastic that the question whether to ban smoking in all or just some pubs, and whether to apply the ban to private clubs (including not just the ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ of St James’s but also the working men’s clubs of the north of England) should be decided by MPs at Westminster instead of being settled where it should have been, by local authorities reflecting the differing views and interests of their local communities — and in the case of private clubs, by their own members, whether gentlemen or working men or even both, as promised by the manifesto on which all Labour MPs fought the last election.  What on earth is the point of having local licensing authorities if they aren’t allowed to take this kind of decision for themselves?  MPs of all parties pay lip service to the need to ’empower’ local communities by devolving decision-making to them wherever possible.  But when it comes to the point, they can’t keep their sticky fingers off every issue that comes up. 

And so much for the sanctity of the manifesto!

Up-date (19 Feb 2006):  In a comment on this post, Tony Hatfield
argued the case for a ban, and I replied with an alternative view. 
Since this exchange widens the discussion usefully, I am transferring
it as a postscript to the original entry.

Tony Hatfield wrote:  Surely this is a genuine health and
safety issue. It’s not just the stench of tobacco that’s
objectionable — I dislike all kinds of smells — but there can be little
doubt now that breathing in second-hand tobacco fumes is dangerous.  Now
there’s nothing to stop the members of the Trimdon WMC from erecting a
building where they can puff all day if they wish, but why should they
create a danger to those who have to serve the booze to them? The
members have no more right to injure their employees by filling their
premises with tobacco carcinogens than authorising the spraying of
asbestos products or installing radio-actice fruit machines!

Brian writes
I entirely agree that the health implications of smoking are an issue,
including the risk to people who work in an environment where others
smoke.  But none of this affects the two arguments which point the other way:

(1) It’s not the business of the law to substitute the judgement of any
public authority as to the degree and acceptibility of a given risk
(unless it’s a risk to the entire community in question, which
obviously isn’t the case here) for that of adult
individuals, who are entitled to the privilege of choosing for
themselves whether to work (or drink) among smokers, and to accept such
risks as that might entail.  A blanket ban of the kind just enacted
robs us all of that right of choice.  If the law or local
regulations permitted certain kinds of pubs to allow smoking, and
others to ban it, barmen and other pub staff would be free to choose
whether to work in smokey pubs or smoke-free ones, just as customers
would be able to choose.  If the law permitted private clubs’ members
to choose whether or not to accept the risks of allowing smoking,
similarly the members and their employees would be free to weigh the
risks against the pleasures, and make their own choices.  No-one is
forced to work in a pub or club where people smoke, any more than
drinkers are forced to drink in such pubs.  It’s sensible to try to
ensure that there’s a real choice available, e.g. by obliging pubs to
make available a minimum given percentage of their total space to smoke-free
zones, or by providing incentives for some pubs to opt to be totally
smoke-free.  But in the end, the market will take care of that if there’s freedom of choice:  if
enough people choose not to accept the risk of working for a pub where
there’s smoking, or of drinking in such a pub, then their demand will
encourage the appearance of non-smoking pubs.  And if enough people
decide that the pleasure (or higher wages) of drinking (or working) in
a smokey pub outweighs the risk to their health, there’ll be enough
smoking pubs to meet that demand, too.  Why should ordinary people be
denied that freedom to choose?

(2)  Even if the case for a
total ban on smoking in pubs and private clubs were to be overwhelming
(and it seems to me feeble in the extreme, as argued in (1)), what
possible case could there be for instituting the ban indiscriminately
over the whole country, without the slightest regard for local
differences of taste, habit, leisure tradition, attitude to risk, and
above all differences of local public opinion?  Once the parliament at
Westminster has passed a total ban into law, there’s effectively
nothing the individual can do about it.  If it’s left to local
authorities, or (better still) even lower-level bodies accountable to
local public opinion, to decide whether to impose a ban, and if so
whether it should be total and rigid or partial and flexible, then the
decision can be preceded by meaningful local consultation (via local
newspapers, local Council debates, public meetings, etc.), and if the
resulting decision offends enough local people, they can apply pressure
on the decision-making body to introduce greater local flexibility so
as to preserve the right of choice.

Much of this argument
hinges, it seems to me, on the increasingly risk-averse attitudes of
politicians and the media.  It’s always safer to ban an activity which
may be popular with some people but which entails a degree of risk,
than to allow us the freedom to take the risk, in the knowledge that in
some cases harm to innocent people may result.  The logical conclusion
of this attitude to risk is to ban not only smoking in public enclosed
places but all smoking everywhere (what about the passive smoking risk to children in private homes?).  It means banning alcohol,
fair-grounds, bungee-jumping and trampolining, and children’s play-grounds. It means plastering the
countryside with protective walls and fences.  Eventually it means
banning the motor-car and flying.  My freedom means, among other things,
my freedom to take risks in order to enjoy benefits which I judge to
outweigh the risks, a judgement only I can make (provided only that my
decision doesn’t inflict unavoidable harm on others’ freedom to make
the same choices).  I strongly resent Patricia Hewitt and her
nanny-colleagues making those decisions for me.  Given the choice, I
would opt to drink in a smoke-free pub rather than drink among smokers;
and if I fancied a job as a barman, I’d opt to look for a job in a
smoke-free pub or its smoke-free bar.  But I don’t have the freedom to
choose differently, because the busy-bodies at Westminster have taken
it away from me, after persuading me (in the case of some of them) to
vote for them on the basis of an explicit promise not to do so.


5 Responses

  1. Funnily enough, I can remember my mother deploying the the same arguments when, in the family’s  recently acquired  Hillman Minx, HMG told her to use seatbelts. After all driving without seat  belts is as just about as risky as bungee jumping!The risk aversion is as important to the occupiers of those premises where you argue smoking ought to continue. Had the loopy ban on some premises gone ahead, I suspect the liability insurers, having assessed the increased risk to the staff, would ensure the premiums were set at such a rate that the no smoking signs would soon be nailed to the concert room door.   


    Brian writes:  I rather agree with your mother.  The government’s responsibility is to ensure that everyone is fully informed of the risks involved in not wearing a seat-belt in a car, and that every car sold in the UK is fitted with seat belts.  Thereafter it ought to be up to each of us to decide whether we want to accept the risk or not.  Same with smoking in pubs and clubs.  If enough people make it clear that they won’t go to pubs where people smoke, and enough other people make it clear that they won’t go to pubs if they can’t smoke in them, smoking and non-smoking pubs will respond to meet the demand.  As for private clubs, it should be up to the members to decide what they want.  The next step is going to be a government ban on smoking inside people’s homes, with powers for smoke inspectors to enter private houses (and clubs) with sniffer dogs at any time of the day or night.  And if the busy-body tendency really can’t resist the temptation to control our lives like this, at the very least they should leave it to local bodies at the lowest possible level to take these decisions.  Why should the MPs for Chelsea and Westminster and for Tooting have any say whatever in decisions about smoking in a working men’s club in Northumberland? 

    Incidentally, I don’t ‘argue that smoking ought to continue‘ in any particular premises.  I argue that whether smoking should continue anywhere ought to be nothing at all to do with the government or the House of Commons, and everything to do with the people who use the premises. Get the politicians off our backs!

  2. Brian,I detect a worrying libertarian tendency here.  tps I’m not sure your line break is fully functional!

  3. Aidan says:

    I am surprised that in all this, the concept of protecting children from passive smoking has not been debated. If  there is a moral duty to protect employees from smoke (who after all are adults and have freely entered a contract to work in a smoky environment), then surely there is an even stronger moral argument to protect children who are a) probably more susceptible and b) have no control over their situation.
    Whilst any law to ban smoking in the same room as children (including private homes), would be very difficult to enforce, there are plenty of other laws which are very difficult to enforce, and this is not an argument against their existence at all.
    I’m pretty ambivalent on the smoking ban – you must either reduce civil liberties of smokers, or restrict the capacity for employment of those who wish to avoid health risks. These seem pretty finely balanced. However to me, a ‘no smoking in front of children’ law seems far more justifiable.

    Brian comments:  I really think we have to draw the line at this sort of attempt to prevent people making their own risk assessments and behaving accordingly in their own homes — even if they affect their children, as almost all domestic decisions are bound to do.  The one exception I would make to this, as I have written elsewhere in Ephems, is to impose a legal ban on hitting children (euphemistically referred to by the mealy-mouthed corporal punishment "never did me any harm" brigade as ‘smacking’): adults are legally banned from hitting each other and children, being incomparably more vulnerable, need more protection from being hit by adults than adults do.  I agree with Aidan that a legal measure should not be ruled out just because it is difficult to enforce, but in the case of a ban on hitting children, it would apply and be readily enforceable outside as well as inside the home, and would have a useful normative effect;  but a ban on smoking inside the home could only ever be enforced by giving the police, or some other public authority, sweeping powers to enter private homes, perhaps with sniffer dogs, to check for ash-trays, cigarette stubs, or the smell of tobacco smoke.  Such Orwellian powers ought to be unthinkable in a liberal democracy (just supposing that we had one).  Anyway, it would be the ultimate nonsense to try to prevent parents by law from smoking in front of their children while not using the law to prevent parents from hitting them.

  4. Sharon - Derby says:

    I have voted for the Labour Party for the last 40 years, but no more.  I live in a marginal seat, Derby North, and where I live there are 2 members’ clubs and 4 pubs of which only 2 serve food.  I cannot believe that Labour have got away with this ban.  They have obtained thousands of votes by deception, then once in power have ditched their manifesto; to me this is fascism by the back door.  As a law-abiding citizen I am incensed that if I were to smoke grass I would receive a slap on the wrist from the police, but if I smoke a perfectly legal cigarette I will be fined £50 in a pub: ludicrous.  I support the rights of both sets of pub users, non-smoking and smoking; there was no reason why a room for each could not have been provided in a pub.  To get my Labour MP ousted at the next election I will vote tactically and vote conservative to get him ousted.  I am outraged that my vote was obtained in this way, which in effect made it worthless.

    Brian writes:  Thank you for this eloquent comment.  I am sending a copy of it to my (Labour) MP and suggesting that he might pass it on to your MP, Bob Laxton, also Labour. 

  5. Rob says:

    I have voted Labour my entire life. I will never vote Labour again as long as I live as a direct result of the smoking ban.