Hockney blows smoke on Labour's plan to ban tobacco

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Indy Politics

The internationally acclaimed artist, who spends most of his time living in smoke-free Los Angeles, arrived at Labour conference wearing in his button hole a pink rose, rather than the more usual red one, and declared: "Death awaits you whether you smoke or not."

He started the day with a combative appearance on the Today programme on Radio 4, dismissing as "absolutely dreary" Julie Morgan, the earnest Labour MP who argued smoking in pubs could damage the health of the bar staff. He told her: "You're too bossy, chum ... People don't want to live like you do."

Over the course of the day Mr Hockney, came up with a palette of colourful abuse of Labour's plans to ban smoking in pubs and clubs. The proposal to outlaw smoking in public places was "ridiculous", he said.

"You cannot have a smoke free bohemia. Without a bohemia you pay a heavy price," he said in an interview with The Independent. "Picasso smoked until he was about 98 and so did Matisse."

Mr Hockney defended the right of smokers to pursue their pastime, dismissing the Government's plans as excessive bossiness.

"I smoke for my mental health, so do most people actually. If they are not on it what replaces it? Antidepressants. I'd prefer a cigarette," he said.

Sitting in the bar of the conference hotel with his partner of 17 years, John Fitzherbert, he dismissed the health risks associated with smoking and said: "if it kills me next week. I don't care. Not everyone can live to be 100. My mother did and she told me it wasn't too much fun," he said.

The artist has just spent several weeks painting landscapes in his native Yorkshire where he saw about three cars a day while painting by the roadside. He began smoking at 18, while at Bradford art college,

"They were five Woodbines and they called them coffin nails then," he said.

The artist's presence caused a frisson of excitement in Brighton and threatened to eclipse Labour's health and education debates. Was Mr Hockney interested in the conference proceedings at all?

"Not really no," he said, looking bored. "I am not political. I am well aware that utopian politics in the 20th century murdered millions. I have only voted twice in my life to be honest. Because I live in America."

Mr Hockney was taken to Brighton by Forest, a pro-smoking lobby group funded by cigarette makers. At a packed meeting he attacked the government's plans alongside Joe Jackson, the 80s singer, and the chef Antony Worrall-Thompson.

Did the artist worry about being hijacked by the tobacco manufacturers? " No," he quipped.

"I am glad of the tobacco manufacturers. I am a big customer of theirs. They make a good vegetarian product."

Despite his vocal support for the smoking lobby, Mr Hockney confessed he was not actually a heavy smoker himself and never puffed away at the easel. "I don't know how many I smoke a day to be honest I don't actually count them. If I am chatting away to people I might smoke a bit but if I am painting I don't," he said.

As for pubs, he said he didn't generally go into them. "I'm not really social. Most restaurants are too noisy for me," he said. "I go mostly from private spaces to private spaces. Because California has a nice climate they have a lot of outdoor restaurants."

Posing for photographs, in his dapper grey suit and hand-made brown brogues, Mr Hockney gazed out of the window at the dilapidated remains of Brighton pier, which he declared "rather beautiful". Then he paused to admire a sleeping guide dog - a labrador rather than the dachsunds he favours in his pictures.

Paradoxically only metres away the Royal National Institute for the Blind was busy handing out research proving that smoking causing blindness.

"It used to be wanking that caused blindness," Mr Hockney said.