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January 31, 2006

Theodore Dalrymple on Smoking Bans: How the likely total ban on smoking in public places shows what we have become - a Nation of Intolerant Monomaniacs

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Now that Labour MPs will have a free vote, a total ban on smoking in public places in England and Wales, including in all pubs - as opposed to the government's preferred option of a partial ban - is looking increasingly likely. Theodore Dalrymple argues that this shows what we have become, a nation of intolerant monomaniacs.

As the famous song puts it, Britons never, never shall be slaves.

By this, I suppose, is meant that (for some historical reason or other) Britons have a natural attachment to or vocation for liberty. This might have been true in the past, but it is certainly not true now.

I was reminded of this by a little editorial in The Lancet for 21st January. It concerned the prospects for a total ban in Britain of smoking in public places.

Whenever I treat of the subject of smoking, I find it expedient to point out that I am not a smoker; that in fact I detest the habit; that I am irritated by smokers who do not realise how unpleasant their habit is for other people (something that they discover for themselves once they have given up); that I am not in the pay of the tobacco companies, nor do I own any shares in them. I have no vested interests to declare.

The editorial in The Lancet was delighted that the political prospects for a total ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants are now very bright. The House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights has reported that a merely partial ban would be in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights by discriminating against workers who worked in places where smoking was permitted, and also against the customers of those places. As the Robespierres of The Lancet put it:

People working in these premises… often do not have the luxury of choosing their workplace…
In other words, unlike the Britons of the song, they are slaves, and it is up to the government to ensure that the slaves, who have no recourse to another way of life, are treated decently and protected from pollutants. Of course, it is possible that publicans and barmen might be insulted by being described as slaves by The Lancet, but I shall let it pass.

The Lancet then went on to demand of Members of Parliament that they do their duty:
We call on all members of Parliament across all parties to carefully weight up the consequences of their vote for the health of the public. Health for all must be the first consideration.
Why should health for all be the first consideration? Health is not the only desideratum of human existence. If it were, there are hundreds of activities – most sports, for example, that cause untold numbers of injuries – that ought to be banned. A vigorous afternoon walk is probably better for the health, long-term, than any sport could ever be. The healthiness of mountaineering is more than offset by its dangers, and therefore ought to be banned.

Perhaps the most alarming thing about the editorial is that it does not see that there is any question of liberty involved at all. It is not as if there is anyone who is ignorant of the dangers of smoking: in more than thirty years since I qualified as a doctor, I have never met anyone in Britain to whom the dangers of smoking came as a surprise. No one smokes in ignorance. Only if you regard a considerable proportion of the population as natural slaves in need of protection from themselves - therefore, who do things only because they cannot do otherwise - can you justify a total ban.

It is not that I believe that The Lancet should have written:
Liberty for all must be the first consideration.
This is because I do not think there is a single end of human life that comes before all the others in all circumstances. I believe that it is quite right that there should be places where smokers cannot indulge in their habit. Where smokers and non-smokers are forced to mingle, it is the non-smokers whose wish that they should breathe smoke-free air that should be paramount. Their freedom to breathe clean air trumps that of smokers to impart fumes to it, just as in a block of flats a resident's desire for peace and quiet at three in the morning should trump (though in practice it often does not) that of his neighbour to play loud reggae music at that hour.

But there is absolutely no reason why there should not be public places for smokers to congregate socially if they so wish. I hesitate to praise the government, but its attempt to ensure that there were both smoking and non-smoking bars seemed to me laudable, even if the attempt was motivated – as The Lancet editorial implied – by a desire to please the tobacco companies. It gave a just measure of freedom to smokers and non-smokers alike.

Clearly, the balance of freedom and public health is a question of degree. There are many restrictions on our freedom that we accept for reasons of hygiene and public health. If it could be shown that, say, twenty per cent of people who entered a bar in which there was smoking died pretty soon afterwards as a result, I should be the first person to call for a total ban: though the infringement of the liberty to smoke would be the same as in the present circumstances.

Liberty is not to be infringed for trivial reasons, however, or because of the kind of enthusiasm that eighteenth century thinkers associated with religious fanaticism and intolerance. The fact that I do not like smoking and that smoking in bars may marginally raise the death rate of smokers (non-smokers would have to spend an awful lot of time in smoking bars for the smoke they breathed in there to pose any real danger to them, so long in fact that they would surely be in far greater danger from alcoholism) are not serious reasons to infringe the liberties of smokers.

With the downfall of the Soviet Union, I thought we might see the end of the ideological mode of thought, and regain some kind of subtlety. Instead, we seem now to live in cacophonous world of insistent and intolerant monomanias.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as a doctor.

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Tut, tut, Dr Dalrymple, this is a liberal country. Depraved sexual habits, betrayal of one's wife and children, public deceit, and hypocritical election campaigns as "the straight candidate" are obviously not merely acceptable but admirable. But smoking - now, that is a serious matter.

Posted by: Matt at January 31, 2006 05:28 PM

My dislike for smoking bans (even though I have never smoked) was increased by an article I saw some years ago revealing a study by the National Institutes for Health that showed no adverse health effects whatever from exposure to "second-hand smoke". In fact, it even indicated some protective effects for certain cancers! It was promptly suppressed. Anti-smoking propaganda is yet another tactic to increase the power of government at the expense of liberty.

Posted by: Robert Speirs at January 31, 2006 09:42 PM

"I have never met anyone in Britain to whom the dangers of smoking came as a surprise," writes Dr Dalrymple. Indeed, if I am not mistaken, cigarettes were commonly called 'gaspers' during the Great War and perhaps earlier. Even were that the first suggestion of problems caused by smoking, it was more than ninety years ago. Hence I wonder why taxpayers need to fund all the irritating anti-smoking advertisements if everyone knows it already.

Posted by: s masty at February 1, 2006 06:23 PM

"Hence I wonder why taxpayers need to fund all the irritating anti-smoking advertisements if everyone knows it already."

Because whole armies of bureaucrats and academics exist to continually restate the bleedin' obvious.

and with any social ill (real or imagined), a poster campaign satisfies the "Yes, Minister" syllogism:

1) Something must be done
2) This is something
3) Therefore, this must be done

Posted by: Jimmy McQueen at February 1, 2006 10:29 PM

i smoked every day for years, just watsnig my days away i am an artist and it kind of went with the lifestyle i smoked it for 15 years!i finally began to stop smoking dope when i stopped smoking tobacco, and discovered it was the tobacco i mixed it with that i was addicted to but it did help that i had changed my lifestyle. i began to realise that marijuana was sapping my drive, ambition, energy, and self-esteem .i began to spend less time in the pub as well, i found i had work to do and less time to just lie around getting stoned, and also spent less time with my unemployed ne'er do well former friends! its not easy, but sometimes you have to kick a lot of habits at once maybe you need to get the job to give you the impetus to get up and out, which will give you more energy and confidence, which will help to change the way you live your life you may find that your less ambitious friends will not want you to change, because it will make them look bad, or weak .in the end you will have to find a way that suits you, based on your personality and your strengths the fact that you want to do it is a good indicator that this is something you CAN do :)best wishes, and good luck!!(btw i did start smoking again after five years, tobacco mainly, but was rushed into hospital last year after a massive asthma attack being unable to breathe finally made me realise i kinda liked life, and i am now healthy and will never smoke anything ever again! sometimes it takes a near death experience to bring home to you exactly what is important in life )

Posted by: Angelique at June 4, 2012 07:48 PM
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