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March 29, 2005

Richard D. North on Smoking Bans

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of the Social Affairs Unit's forthcoming Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - asks why the current vogue for smoking bans has come about just as technology and consumer demand were in any case about to achieve almost all the effects that bans seek to achieve, but without the resultant loss of freedom.

We should perhaps smell a rat. We hear news of an advancing front of anti-smoking bans. We hear that Scotland and Liverpool are keen on them, and Ireland's is a year old today. Naturally, New Labour have said they cannot bear to be left far behind.

What's this, a leery old-fashioned English a louche but rational Anglo-Saxon voice may wonder? The Celtic fringe seems to be abandoning its heritage. Remember Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with its figuring of jazzy blacks as civilisation's counterfoil? Well, these banning-zones are all places which seek to abandon their Toon-town reputation of shabeen and riot. Or think of the steerage class Ceilidhs on board Hollywood's Titanic, with their easeful abandon so different to the up-tight, hooped rectitudes and nastiness of the class-ridden Anglosphere elsewhere in the ship. Mystical, fun-loving, chaotic, our Celtic cousins may have been. Now they are sneering at us from the reborn and revisioned hideouts into which they had been chased or marginalised, and are accusing us us with our Teutonic good sense of being old-fashioned, unreconstructed, unreformed.

Various reasons might be adduced for the way that the people of the mists have reached for bans on smoking. One is that these are places and people who want to assert publicly their love affair with progress. After decades as slightly comical backwaters, they find themselves to be at the forefront of being modern. Dublin is the capital of a Silicon Bog. Liverpool is sloughing off its beatledom to become a conventionally commercial and cultural centre. Scotland is experiencing a sort of national rebirth as a country which produces lots of government as well as drunks.

So bans seem to appeal to places which seek to become Euro-normal. You sense something like it in Spain, as well. One can conceive, too, of New York as a place which wanted to shrug off its Irish-Italian tatterdemalian glamour and danger. Zero-tolerance wanted the Bowery swept under the carpet and smokers displaced to the pavement.

But of course, the people of the mists have got it wrong. Perhaps because they are new to the world of restraint, they have not noticed that bans, like boycotts, almost always do more harm than good. They have not spotted that bans almost always shut the stable door of regulation after the horse of mayhem has bolted.

Because smokers are now a minority, and because anti-smokers are so vociferous, businesses have increasing catered more for the latter. That's to say, smokers are effectively banned from, or ghettoised within, most public places. Non-smokers are seldom now condemned to share their personal space with smoke. Even in pubs, it is increasingly easy to find smoke-free spots. Zoning and air-conditioning will only advance and make that more the case.

In short, the market and voluntary good sense have produced the effect that non-smokers and smokers alike have little to complain about. Smoky places and non-smoky places, and places which are smoky or non-smoky in different degree are all available, and were set to become more so.

The proposed UK ban will produce the bizarre effect that smoking will only be allowed in spit-and-sawdust pubs which eschew the service of food. Thus will New Labour contrive to minister to their beloved working class by condemning its smokers to exactly the sort of empty-bellied, alcohol-fuelled evenings to which pubs which serve food were providing a civilised and civilising alternative. Meanwhile, elitist gentlemen's clubs will continue to be able to provide men-only smoking dens, and feed people too.

The appetite for bans of course panders to those smokers and anti-smokers alike who seek to rob us of temptation. They argue that making it impossible to combine drinking and smoking in public will help bolster the will-power of those tyro or putative non-smokers for whom access to smoking is a step too far. So they argue that lives will be saved by a ban. So some will. We'd better face that.

On such grounds, we should certainly ban mountaineering, alcohol, motorbikes and much else.

The bad effects of a ban do matter. They are a victory of bossiness over the voluntary, and it is won just as the voluntary was about to achieve almost all the effects that the ban will. So the ban achieves much less than its fans suggest, whilst the ill-effects of the ban the stubbing out of freedom are barely noticed.

In short, the English are at risk of becoming a people who do not like the dark side of their natures, and do not self-regulate it as free people. The paradox is that the wilful Celts, the wild fringe, has seemed to be taking the more civilised path. But when we think it has, we forget that these smoking bans are not only a repudiation of fun and risk. They are an admission by Celts that only by banning freedom can they breathe freely. Anglos should try harder and can do better than that.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published in April by the Social Affairs Unit.

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