The last time I smoked a cigarette was, I think, in 2007. I'm pretty sure it was in a pub. A glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other went, well, hand in hand.
But then the ban on smoking in enclosed public places came in and that was that. Yes, I could stand outside the pub in order to smoke a cigarette, but the association – and a lot of the pleasure from sitting cosily indoors - was gone.
It was an extremely effective public health policy and it’s transformed pubs into pleasant, open places you'd want to have your lunch in. But, crucially, the ban has cut active smoking among the adult population and has reduced the health risks of passive smoking.
Because of the obvious public health benefits (to myself as well as society), I was in favour of the ban. I am also in favour of banning smoking in cars where children are passengers because of the detrimental effects on their young lungs. I wrote last year that I supported hospitals that wanted to prevent staff and patients lighting up in those grisly bus shelter-style cubicles because it just seemed crazy that someone in an NHS green gown recovering from an operation was able to have a cigarette, having got to the cubicle in a wheelchair pushed by a nurse.
Now a report commissioned by Boris Johnson and written by Lord Darzi, the former Labour health minister, is arguing for banning smoking in parks and other outdoor places like Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square I can’t quite bring myself to back it. Smoking bans to protect the public from passive smoking are sensible and right. But this proposal, which is aimed at London but could be introduced nationwide, is not about lessening the direct impact of passive smoking (which would be hard to argue, given the open air). It is, according to England’s chief medical officer Professor Sally Davies, for two reasons: first, to curb active smoking, and second, to reduce “role modelling in front of children”.
To address the first point, stopping smokers from having a cigarette inside a pub sent them on to the pub’s doorstep. Stopping them outdoors might encourage those social smokers like me to kick the habit for good, but for regular tobacco addicts, this will surely just send them to the last place they are allowed to light up: in the home, in front of the children, with no fresh air – which is worse.
Davies’s second point is more troubling. I agree it is disturbing, as it was reported yesterday, that 67 young people in London take up smoking every day. But is this really because they see grown-ups with cigarettes in public parks and want to emulate them? My first cigarette, aged 17, happened to be in a park in Liverpool – over the road from my school. My friends and I would sneak out to the park for a cigarette during free periods before downing entire packs of Polo mints by the time we got back for History. I started smoking because of role models, but they were people like Kate Moss and her 10-pack of Silk Cut, not some grown-up in the park walking his dog. And there is no ban in the world that can stop supermodels smoking.
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If the authorities want to ban things, then they need to be consistent. Banning smoking indoors for one reason (public health) but then proposing a ban outdoors for another (role modelling) just sends confusing messages to the public, which makes for bad policy. Public health policy is always dogged by mixed messages: introducing 24-hour drinking was a mess because the government told us first it was about creating a Continental-style café culture, then about supposedly improved public order from staggered closing times. When a government can’t make up its mind why it wants to introduce something, it shouldn’t be introduced.
When so much effort is placed on curbing smoking, so little attention is given to the risks of alcohol, even though drinking and smoking costs the NHS roughly the same each year – around £3bn. It is true that smoking is far likelier to cause cancer in an individual than alcohol is, but the wider social harm from drinking is more damaging. A report yesterday from Alcohol Concern found that 10 million hospital visits last year were due to heavy drinking. While NHS inpatient wards are burdened by patients ill from the chronic effects of smoking, turn up at an A&E, day or night, weekday or weekend, and there will be someone collapsed on the chairs or admitted by stretcher because of alcohol.
Yet both this government and the last seem positively relaxed about drinking. The Labour government, in a catastrophic betrayal of its working-class voters, sucked up to the drinks industry by relaxing licensing hours. This Coalition, whose ministers are regularly lobbied by drinks companies, has done nothing to stop a Wetherspoons being built at a motorway service station, of all places. Again, confusion reigns: after David Cameron promised to introduce minimum unit pricing on alcohol, he then backed down. The tobacco industry makes its mark too, given how long the government has taken to introduce plain packaging on cigarettes. Cigarettes and alcohol pose grave public health issues for us as a society. But banning smoking in parks is the wrong way to address them.Reuse content