Once upon a time, enjoying a smoke-free meal was a matter of luck. If a group of smokers decided to light up over at the next table, you were given a simple choice: breathe in the tar-laden fumes or bugger off.
A few years ago, lawmakers decided to fix that.
Smoking has since been banned in just about every communal space in the UK, and public health now takes unquestionable precedent over the preservation of Britain’s archaic pub culture. Why? Because it's estimated that second-hand smoke kills 11,000 people in the UK every year, and those deaths are 100 per cent preventable. But there’s one place officials have yet to try and tackle these senseless health risks – and it’s high time we fix that.
When the public smoking ban came into effect in 2007, it was decided that prison cells should be left untouched. Inmates have since been permitted to light up pretty much whenever they want – no matter who else is in the room. Yet fellow prisoners and security staff are starting to get sick and tired of being regularly exposed to unwanted cigarette smoke, and it’s easy to see where they’re coming from. After all, we wouldn’t trap a non-smoker in a restaurant full of smokers, so why on earth would we do the same thing to an inmate in prison?
Okay: when you go to jail, you inevitably surrender a few basic rights. It’s only fair. Yet in a country that abhors capital punishment, it’s seriously unsettling to think we’re actively denying tens of thousands of people the right to clean oxygen. We might as well be giving prisoners a daily injection of cancerous cells.
Thankfully, the Government is finally responding to these concerns – and in the next few months, ministers are keen to introduce blanket bans in prisons across England and Wales. But not everybody is happy about it.
Experts reckon that around 80 per cent of inmates in England’s 136 prisons are smokers (versus about one in five non-prisoners). As a result, members of the Prison Governors Association have warned that a move to ban smoking may be unwise, as it could result in severe instability. They’re probably right – take away a daily dose of calming nicotine, and a lot of dangerous individuals are going to get very grumpy. Yet so long as smoking is permitted in the country’s prisons, facility staff and other inmates are already being placed at risk anyway.
The average puff of cigarette smoke contains about 70 cancer-causing compounds and hundreds of other toxins. Those chemicals kill one out of every two regular smokers, and they’re responsible for just under a fifth of all deaths in the UK. Bearing that in mind, if the Government wants to reduce the proportion of individuals that smoke in this country, is a correctional facility not the ideal place to start?
Let’s approach this logically: we don’t hand over bulging bags of heroin or cocaine to imprisoned addicts. Health professionals work tirelessly to help inmates kick the habit. So, instead of enabling cigarettes to be traded around like cash in a hive of nicotine addicts, perhaps it’s time we change tack and start passing out nicotine patches. Politicians are always going on about how we should be trying to "reform" prisoners. Let’s start by teaching them how to keep themselves alive.
In private, smoking advocates can justifiably argue that it’s unfair for the Government to tell them what poisonous materials they can and cannot put into their own bodies. They’re absolutely right, so let’s leave them be. But prison isn’t somebody’s private home – and when you break the law, there are certain things the Government can tell you to do. Not killing your fellow inmates via cigarette smoke qualifies as one of those things.