LEADING ARTICLE : Let smokers die in peace

Any sentient smoker will agree that the habit is horrible. The cigarette addict is condemned to a life of smelly clothes, bad breath and severe health worries. Long meetings become purgatory, the only refuge often being a smoker's area of olfactory horror, the exile of the emergency fire stairs, or a rainswept pavement outside the office. And always there is that nagging feeling that one day you may pay a very big price for a very small pleasure.

For non-smokers, on the other hand, life has gradually become much better. Increasingly, it is possible to eat in restaurants with good non-smoking areas, travel on transport where smoke is restricted and sit in public areas where your lungs are not under siege. We have more or less reached the stage where the only people that smokers harm (apart from their families, that is) is themselves.

Surely, that is also the point at which the community's collective interest in restricting their smoking ought to stop. Despite all the hype, the cost to the country of smoking is not enormous. True, there is the burden on the NHS of treating smoking-related illnesses. But this is probably more than made up for by the involuntary benefit conferred on pension funds - and the Exchequer - by smokers who conveniently die towards the end of their working lives.

Derby Council, however, does not share this assessment. In the past, in common with many other employers, the council took the view that - providing they do not interfere with others - smokers ought to be allowed some facility to indulge their habit. But this week that stopped. Though existing staff are to be permitted to continue to use smoking rooms on council premises, new staff will not. This policy will, apparently, be spelled out in contracts of employment. Gradually, the council believes, it will become entirely an organisation of non-smokers.

But if smokers have already ceased to be a nuisance to their colleagues and to the public, why then prevent them from smoking in a separate area? The answer seems to be that the council believes it is assisting the process of encouraging non-smoking in society. In other words, it is acting in the best interests of smokers themselves - whether they like it or not.

This is a very dangerous thing for a council to do. Wherever possible, agencies of central and local government should let consenting adults do what pleases them. Only where the "harm-to-others" test is failed should they step in. It is simply not the business of the council as an employer to try to engineer the private habits of its employees.

Furthermore, the people of Derby ought to ask themselves how well they are being served by their council's action. Would they agree that smokers should look elsewhere for work, no matter how talented or good at their jobs they may be? Is a key criterion for employment as a manager or a social worker in Derby to be whether or not you smoke, not how efficient or sensitive you are?

Of course not. The council should abandon its new policy and concentrate on offering and improving the services that they have been elected to provide.