The Year in Review: British life

The outsiders
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The Independent Online

In July, when the ban on smoking in public buildings was introduced in England, I was in Brazil, a country where men are men (although often they have the secondary sexual characteristics of women), and they like to smoke cigars the size of Amazonian trees. They smoke them in restaurants, they smoke them in offices they smoke them anywhere they damn well please. It's as difficult to imagine a smoking ban in Brazil as it is a moratorium on commercial logging.

When I left Brazil, I went to the US, a country where a smoking ban has been in place for so long now that the inveterate nicotinistas have fully adapted. Setting to one side the possibly apocryphal tale of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg trying to have Keef Richards arrested for smoking on stage during a Rolling Stones gig at Madison Square Garden, you only have to wander the Manhattan streets for a few minutes to see the future of smoking and how well it works. Purpose-built puffing booths; chatty, coughy colloquia at the foot of office blocks; trim uptown girls skipping along Fifth Avenue, a Herms scarf over one shoulder, a smoky pashmina slung across the other. The American tobacco culture has rolled with the Puritanical punches, and survived.

Back in Blighty, I found a curiously unembattled smoking fraternity: we had seen the ban coming, and mostly made our peace with it. The powers-that-be had already launched trial blitzkriegs on Ireland north and south Scotland and Wales, so nobody was in any doubt about the consequences. I suspect the majority of smokers were like me, and accepted the ban as a fait accompli. After all, once the tipping point had been reached, and well over half the adult population no longer indulged, only a dumb bear squatting in the Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) could reasonably expect them to put up with our shit-laden breath.

There were also those who, quite sensibly, looked to a ban as a means of assisting them to break off their affair with La Divina Nicotina once and for all. So there was little dissent, apart from the usual suspect "libertarians" banging on about their "rights", and a few crypto-licensing agents, who inveigh against any measure that constrains an industry that derives the vast majority of its income from addicts. However, the trade had already been softened up by the timely introduction of 24-hour drinking, so, not much trouble from that quarter and certainly no die-hard mavericks risking prosecution in order to preserve their establishments in the acrid mists of time.

The smoking ban was a quintessential Blairite policy perhaps the signature legislation of an entire decade of government. It was a measure taken after the fact of its acceptance that nonetheless allowed the politicians involved to style themselves as the vanguard of a new health consciousness. It involved minor government spending for maximum effect, and it fitted perfectly into a hard utilitarian calculus, that sees the promotion of life even if it's a life endlessly prolonged in miserable sub-standard state "care homes" as the pre-eminent moral good.

Opinions differ enormously as to whether the ban has actually achieved a decrease in English smoking. The statistics will be hard to crunch, given the porousness of our borders to cigarettes and rolling-tobacco-seeking asylum. Some opine that the ban has actually increased smoking, now that the hard-core element stop at home, chaining away, but I have my doubts. One thing is for sure: it'll take a long time for the policy to filter through to any unequivocally positive health benefits, while the possibility remains remote but real that the ban may make smoking still more attractive to yoof seeking optimal transgression. Remember: nicotine is a drug.

For myself, while I never opposed the ban, I have to say that I find it a bit more of a drag than I thought I would. Perversely, although I'm a frantic gourmand when it comes to most means of intoxication, I always rather fancied myself as a tobacco gourmet. Not for me the bum-sucked Silk Cut, oh no. I always favoured the Hoyo de Monterey Epicure No 2, preferably ignited in the cosy confines of St John, my favourite London restaurant. Now that this gestalt of good food + good talk + great cigar has been blown away, I feel quite deprived. Not for me the whey-faced company who cluster beneath drenched awnings, nor the ambulatory injection of the required dosage. I have taken to nicotine substitutes in order to bridge the gulf of need that has opened up outside my own pipe- and humidor-lined study; and I suspect that, fings not being wot they used to, I may soon abandon the fags altogether

Still, what goes around comes around, and for all those triumphalist former health secretaries out there, basking in their success, it's worth biting down on this: public smoking was banned in 17 US states in the 1870s, but when the peoples' habits changed again, so did the legislation.