Mary Dejevsky: Time to lighten up, even if not to light up

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The Independent Online

You probably won't believe this, I hardly do myself. But you have to credit the evidence of your own eyes, and lungs. And the evidence of mine, over the past two weeks in France, is that the French – yes, those pesky, rebellious French – are marking the 40th anniversary of their stupendous 1968 revolt by meekly observing their new ban on smoking in public places.

A few desultory couples sitting outside, in the rain, to smoke, offered proof that the law was being generally obeyed. Something similar happened when smoking was banned in Ireland, and in Scotland, then in England. Everywhere, it seemed, there had been a silent consensus in favour of smoke-free; it had just been waiting for the law to catch up. This gives me hope that the new Mayor's ban on alcohol on London's public transport will meet as little resistance.

But I have a question. If the smoking ban is working as well as it seems to be, why is the Government testing public tolerance by introducing something even more draconian? Tobacco, it is proposed, will now suffer a fate worse than strong liquor – a fate comparable indeed to that of the morning-after pill – and be hidden behind shop counters so people have to ask for it. Not long ago we had displays all around Formula One race tracks. Now we have furtive under-counter sales and tongue-tied customers embarrassed to ask for something quite legal. It's quite a jump.

The new measures target under-18s, on the grounds that an early start to smoking is more harmful to health than a later one. It also reflects the reality than teenagers were largely missed by the general ban. Behind the bike sheds, after all, hardly counts as a public place.

Yet it is already illegal for under-18s to buy tobacco. To be sure, there are naive, even crooked or intimidated shopkeepers, who will sell to the underaged. But that is a problem of law-enforcement. More seditious, and far harder to tackle, is the effective black market in cigarettes that over-18s can exploit, selling on to their juniors at a profit. Rendering tobacco commercially invisible may make it all the more desirable as forbidden fruit.

I would recall here the sensible and – quite unjustly – maligned view of one-time minister and now non-person, John Reid. It is four years since he blotted his political copybook by describing anti-smoking campaigns as "an obsession of the learned middle class" and defending smoking as one of the few pleasures left to poor people. "I just do not think, he said, the worst problem on our sink estates by any means is smoking."

Four years on, he is still right. I remember a TV documentary that showed a doctor weighing up the pros and cons of telling a desperate mother not to smoke. The pros were obvious; the cons were that she might take out her frustrations on her baby. Of course, he said, it would be better if she didn't have that cigarette. But the choice was far more complicated, and no less lethal, than smoking v non-smoking.

For smoking – and I write as a non- and never-tempted smoker – has an awkward upside. While the smoking ban on planes has made flying infinitely more agreeable, it has been accompanied by more air-rage incidents. (Airlines now offer nicotine gum.) And for some, especially young women, smoking was a distraction that might moderate the intake of food or drink. Smoking may be in decline, but the new public health-threats are binge-drinking and obesity. It is surely not impossible that there is a connection.

The power of Hillary lives on

Her days as presidential prospect may be numbered, but Hillary Clinton's power to upset the conventional order remains undiminished. That other US mega-star, Oprah Winfrey, has watched ratings for her television show tumble ever since she endorsed Hillary's rival, Barack Obama.

Which only confirms what US pollsters also find. Hillary-loyalists are women of a certain age who saw in her success proof that the feminist cause had been worthwhile. Her defeat is also theirs.

This makes her constituency nigh impossible for either Obama or McCain to crack. Nor, I suspect, would the ultra-loyalists be won over by a so-called "dream ticket", with Hillary as number two. This would only compound their disappointment.

For rolling comment on the US election visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08

* You would hardly know it from recent headlines, but the trend in knife-crime, at least in London, is downwards, and has been for the past three years. So why the hue and cry?

The age of the perpetrators and their victims may be part of it. Perhaps, too, 2008 will see the trend reversed. Whatever the truth, though, the pious response of law-enforcers only annoys. Ever more desperately they insist – the Met Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, was at it yesterday – that "knife-carrying" is a dangerous act in itself. In so saying, they open themselves to the riposte of the US gun lobby: "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." It's the same with knives. For some city teenagers, not carrying a knife will seem far more risky than carrying one. Sir Ian and his ministerial friends need to think up some better arguments before metal-detectors become the new CCTV.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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