Leading article: The birthday of the ban

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The fall in the number of smokers one year since England and Wales banned smoking in public places is good news.

Years have passed since smoking was fashionable, but the habit has proved tenacious, so news that 400,000 have quit, while cigarette sales dropped by over two billion will be seen as proof that bans work.

They are certainly more popular. Ireland was on its own in Europe when it set the precedent in 2004. Since then, Norway, Scotland, England and Wales and, most recently, France, have followed suit. The Netherlands is to bring in a ban this week.

The rationale behind smoking bans is that denial of public space de-legitimises smoking, making it socially unacceptable and so contributing to its withering away.

But whether this logic holds water is not clear. It has not worked with hard drugs, the use of which has spread. Moreover, Ireland's experience raises questions. There, the number of smokers dropped after the ban was introduced only to climb back up a few years later.

The response of supporters of bans is to insist on further measures; bans, they say, need to be "built on". Doubters, meanwhile, say bans only segregate the non-smoking majority from a hard core who then prove indifferent to public pressure.

The lack of resistance to the ban in Britain has strengthened the case of those who advocated it. But we must watch trends carefully. If Britain follows Ireland's example, and cigarette sales recover, the use of illiberal measures such as bans should come under scrutiny and a discussion reopened over their use as aids in the battle to improve the nation's health.