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John Walsh: 'The little sadists will insist on cigarettes being sold singly in paper bags'

Tales of the City

Look, there's a chap over there smoking. Let's go over and torment him. We've already banned him from smoking indoors, forced him to stand outside the pub in the freezing sleet, charged him over six quid a pack and festooned each pack with images of rotting lungs, disgusting teeth and stunted babies. We've told private members' clubs they can't make their own rules about whether members are allowed to smoke, and we've made employers think twice about hiring a smoker (even if he doesn't indulge at work) as if the act of lighting a gasper was in some way criminal.

But we're not finished are we? People are still smoking in the street, outside the office, in the hotel car park. Look at that chap, smoking in the pub garden. Let's make up a new rule and say, you can't smoke in that garden, it's a health risk. Yes, I'm aware that smoke rises and keeps going up until it's dispersed into the atmosphere, but it's possible that some pub employee could be passing overhead in, say, a hot air balloon at 9,000 feet, could inhale a trace element of nicotine and suffer in the future from a slight cough, and because of this high risk factor, we've told the pub owner to ban smoking in the open air, among the innocent, tobacco-free trees ...

Pardon the sarcasm but, sometimes, the anti-smoking lobby sound like sadistic children, dreaming up ever-more elaborate ways to torment people engaged in a perfectly legal activity. The health secretary, Andy Burnham, has proudly announced that he's going to ban smoking in pub gardens and office doorways "to help reduce passive smoking", a pretext so stupidly inimical to both logic and medical science, it takes your nicotine-enriched breath away.

Not content with that, Mr Burnham (who shares a surname, I see, with the terminal drunkard played by Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend) wants to ban vending machines – not to stop people smoking, obviously, since it won't do any such thing, merely to piss them off when they're longing for a fag and there's no petrol station for miles around. Lastly, he wants to force tobacco companies to drop brand artwork. "Now that we've banned advertising and will soon see an end to attractive displays in shops," says Mr Birdbrain, sounding smugger than a human really should, "the only remaining method of advertising tobacco is the packaging." He wants to see only plain fag packets in the future. As if that will make a single smoker think: "Oh no! Twenty cigarettes with no mention of the words 'Marlboro Lights' anywhere! I'm so horrified, I will cease this filthy habit immediately." Andy, seriously, if you're desperate for a cigarette, issues such as artwork don't come into your head.

Will that be the end of it? Of course not. The little sadists will soon insist on cigarettes being sold singly rather than in packets, to be taken home in brown paper bags, like mushrooms. Smoking out of doors, in fields, roads or on pavements will be banned, as will smoking in the home (anti-fag alarms will be installed in every residence) and, soon afterwards, inhaling. They won't actually ban the activity, since it makes the Government such a fortune in duty; but as with torturers, they'll enjoy doing everything but the final bit.


I'm not sure I understand the Rip Torn story. The actor was found by Connecticut police wandering round the Litchfield Bank in the middle of the night, staggering drunk, with a loaded gun in his hand. He was charged with trespass, burglary, criminal mischief, possessing a firearm without a permit and waving it around while plastered. Mr Torn has form in these areas: he seems never to stray very far from a Colt .45 or a quart of Jack Daniels. But what puzzles me is that he told the cops he'd broken into the bank because he thought it was his house.

Was it the three Cashpoints built into the outside wall that caused him to make this elementary blunder? Was it the iron bars and elaborate security system? The word "Bank" in enormous letters over the entrance? The revolving door? The 50 yards of tellers' desks with grilles? Did the lack of a kitchen, a coat rack or a familiar dog not give away the fact that he wasn't actually at home, but in a purpose-built commercial outlet? I'm not sure I'd enjoy meeting Mr Torn (who once attacked Norman Mailer with a hammer because he was fed up with the latter's criticisms) but I'd give a lot to inspect his house.