Leading Article: Passive resistance

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STOCKPORT council has reached an unprecedented pounds 15,000 out-of-court settlement with an employee, Veronica Bland, who claimed that her health had been damaged by passive smoking while at work between 1979 and 1990, when the authority introduced a no-smoking policy within council premises. In legal terms this may turn out to be a less comprehensive victory for the anti-smoking lobby than it might first appear. The Stockport settlement was made to avoid the cost of a court battle that could quite possibly have gone against Ms Bland.

Further, counsel for Ms Bland was in a position to have argued that she had no knowledge of the dangers of passive smoking during the crucial 11 years. Who can tell how the courts would react if faced, in some future case, with a determined employer who said: 'Since 1988, when the first authoritative reports were published, we have warned job applicants that we permit smoking and have drawn attention to recent research which indicates the possible hazards of passive smoking. The claimant took the job in the full knowledge of the potential danger.' Would such a disclaimer override duties under the Public Health Act, the Health and Safety Act and common law obligations on employers?

Whatever the answer to such legal questions, yesterday's decision is likely to have far-reaching social consequences. Ms Bland is a pioneer. Those of a litigious disposition will be encouraged by her success. Further actions - and further out-of-court settlements - can be expected. Institutions that want to avoid even the remotest possibility of exposing themselves to very large actions for damages by employees or ex-employees will feel compelled to impose a ban on smoking throughout their premises. If they do not do so on their own initiative, their insurance companies will pressure them to do so. This, at any rate, is the experience from Australia, where a settlement was reached some years ago in a rather similar passive-smoking case.

There is now broad, but not quite unanimous, agreement among scientific experts that passive smoking can be injurious to health. The only issue for debate is whether the degree of danger is negligible or significant. Informed opinion is shifting towards the latter view. But suppose that passive smoking were to be proved harmless. Smoking would remain a dirty and unpleasant addiction that kills a lot of the people who indulge in it, shortens the lives of others and pollutes the atmosphere of those who are around them.

Studies suggest that a large number of smokers wish to give up, and welcome the introduction of no-smoking areas in offices and other public places as a way of helping them fight their addiction. Who now regrets that London Transport has banned smoking throughout the Underground system and on all its buses? Who would crusade for the return of the smoked-filled cinema or theatre? Yet when these bans were imposed they were widely regarded as attacks on civil liberties.

Many smokers have come to recognise that their habit causes distress and inconvenience to other people, even if they still refuse to believe that they are gambling with the lives of their children or those with whom they work. Good manners alone ought to be enough to compel the minority who smoke to refrain from doing so in enclosed public places.