Matthew Norman: Smokers should be praised not banned

They contribute many billions more to the economy than they take in healthcare

Throughout Whitehall and the metropolitan councils of Britain, a gleam of delight must have illuminated even the most professionally joyless of eyes as they read a report from New York yesterday. The city's health commissioner, Thomas Farley, wishes to outlaw smoking outdoors, in the parks and on the beaches, and it is safe to assume that the idea is now being greedily considered (if it wasn't already) over here.

Inevitably, given the slow but relentless march towards prohibition, the day approaches when the executors of any Keith Floyd manqué who ends his last meal with a few cigarettes on the terrace of a Dorset seafood restaurant will have to settle a £50 fine before probate is granted. If the abolitionists had their way, there would be a clipboard- wielding angel waiting at the Pearly Gates with a penalty notice and a one-way escalator ticket to the bowels of hell.

With touching faux naiveté, I hope that even those who agree with the ban in enclosed public spaces, and might support extending it to cover the presence of children in cars and at home, will find this proposal pernicious and absurd. For this has as much to do with eliminating a health risk to the innocent as the smoking ban imposed, for their long-term benefit, on Alabama death row inmates in the 1990s. Even the bossiest of PC brigadiers and most hysterical nanny statist cannot believe that a wisp of Lucky Strike on the Atlantic breeze could have the faintest passive impact.

Now it should go without saying that the debate about the effects of tobacco, begun here as recently as 1672 by that garrulous sovereign James I (VI of Scotland) with his Counterblast, concluded long ago, and that today no sentient human is ignorant of the dangers. The tuition begins, from personal experience, before the average pupil is old enough to understand the packet warnings about the shrivelled penis.

My son was eight when he returned from school one afternoon and planted a sticker reading "Smoking Damages Your Healthy Heart" (the smiley face was a delightful touch) on the monitor, thereby regressing me to the middle aged adolescent who frantically stubs out and affects a laughably futile air of innocence at his child's tread on the stairs as he did 30 years ago at his parents'.

We have all seen anecdotal evidence to support the scientific fact that nicotine rivals crack cocaine for addictivity. Some of us have provided it for others. Once, long before the ban, a colleague and I watched a chronic asthma sufferer being carried out of the office by paramedics, oxygen mask clamped over her face. We looked at each other, recognised the mirror image of guilt, and duly lit up, and the memory disgusts me to this day.

The terminal throat cancer patient hooked up to an intravenous drip in the hospital car park sucking in tobacco smoke through the tracheotomy hole in the neck is a cliche of palliative care. No one sane would make the case, as they might for medical grade heroin, that this is a harmless and commendable drug. In the battle for hearts, minds and lungs, the foes of smoking have won a crushing victory.

Even the irony of an America, where several towns have already introduced outdoor bans, leading the global vanguard towards abolition is irrelevant. It may seem peculiar that a country that permits the purchase of firearms from Walmart for the price of two cartons of Marlboro Lights is frantically worried about open air smoking; and that the nation which refused to sign up to Kyoto, and looks poised to stymie the next climate change treaty in Copenhagen, would fret about smoke from a chess player's stogie floating across Central Park. But no one ever found a route to serenity in pondering the crazy contradictions of the Land of the Free.

What really offends here, as always with the persecution of the smoker, is the mingling of didactic bombast and rank ingratitude. There is no more selfless and heroic breed of civilian than smokers, who contribute many billions more to the economy than they take in healthcare, and save untold billions more by declining to claim the state pension due to early death.

One sees that it would be poor politics for ministers expressly to admit that the welfare state would disintegrate were the average life span suddenly to rise by several years. But the least common decency demands is that the persecution be confined to areas of provable medical benefit to non- smokers, and some acknowledgement that the lives of those adequately educated about the medical implications are theirs to jeopardise as they please ... some acceptance of the fact that people are stupid and self-destructive, and that mature societies grudgingly accept this and wear kid gloves when handling the frailties.

Disguising neo-puritanical bully boy tactics in the rags of spurious concern about open-air passive smoking fools nobody. More honest to miss out the posturing and go straight to prohibition, and deal with the genuinely criminal results of that, than flam up transparently fake concerns about a mythical peril to passers-by.

If New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, adopts the proposal, as he seems tentatively inclined to do, the historic west-east travelling time of transatlantic trends suggests it will reach us within five years. By then, perhaps face-recognition technology will have developed to the point at which CCTV cameras can identify repeat offenders having a crafty fag in the park, and automatically generate a fine. The revenue potential must be colossal.

If every penny raised were hypothecated to care homes for the elderly, and went towards guaranteeing that we would pass our senescence in sanitary surroundings being well fed and cared for, one might almost overlook the moral and philosophical objections. As it is, facing the prospect of passing the geriatric years dribbling away in wipe-clean plastic chairs eating filth and being patronised or ignored by demotivated nurses, the fear of leaving a dying planet a little early loses its sting.

Given the choice, popping off swiftly at 65 like Keith Floyd, or at 71 like that majestic puffer Simon Gray, having had oodles of fun ignoring all the sound and sonorous medical advice in the world, looks like a subliminal advertising campaign for Imperial Tobacco.