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Car smoking ban: Is the law intruding into citizens' private space?

Tomorrow, smoking in cars with children present will be banned. Cigarette-free trains and planes are the norm, but automobiles? Better get used to it, says Jeremy Laurance

Jeremy Laurance
Tuesday 29 September 2015 20:11 BST
Window of opportunity: the new ban aims to protect under 18s
Window of opportunity: the new ban aims to protect under 18s (AFP/Getty)

Fifty years ago, when more than half the adult population smoked, it was possible to light up anywhere – on trains, boats and planes, in cinemas, theatres and restaurants, in offices and factories, in prisons. Films were viewed through a haze of smoke and entering a pub was to step into a tobacco fug.

All these places are now off limits to smokers – except prisons, which will go smoke-free from January. And today, another brick is added to the wall with the introduction of the ban on smoking in cars carrying children.

Some see this as a dangerous Rubicon – the law intruding into citizens' private space. Motorists and passengers who light up in a vehicle carrying anyone under 18 will be breaking the law and liable to a fixed penalty fine of £50 – or twice that if both driver and an adult passenger are smoking.

Enforcing the new ban will not be easy – as the smoking lobby gleefully pointed out. Motorhomes and caravans, for example, will be subject to the ban when used as vehicles, but not when used as “living spaces”. Expect some lively exchanges when puffs of smoke are spotted emerging from a campervan parked in a lay-by.

For cigarette addicts, finding somewhere to indulge their habit has grown increasingly difficult over the decades since the harms caused by tobacco became clear.

First to move against the cigarette was the airline industry. In 1969, Finnair claimed to be the first airline to provide non-smoking seating. It was followed in 1973 by BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways.

Television advertising of cigarettes had been banned since 1965 and from 1971, all cigarette packs carried the warning: “Smoking can damage your health”. That same year, Rank Leisure became the first major cinema chain to provide non-smoking seating in most of its cinemas.

On the London Underground, half of carriages were already reserved for non-smokers but from 1971, smokers were confined to just two carriages, at the front and back. Discarded cigarette butts filled the grooves in the then-wooden floors. The risk was not recognised until a fire at Oxford Circus Tube station, possibly caused by a cigarette, triggered a complete smoking ban in 1984 – but only on the trains, not in the stations.

A year later, the ban was extended to Tube platforms – but the ban did not apply to the areas above. It took the tragedy of the King's Cross fire in 1987, in which 31 people died, before a complete ban on the entire network was introduced, with no exemptions. It is thought a match discarded by a smoker on an escalator may have caused the fire.

In 1988, British Airways banned smoking on all domestic flights. Two years later, in 1990, Virgin Atlantic launched the first smoke-free flights to the US, swiftly followed by Air Canada, and in 1993, British Midland.

The same year, British Rail announced it would phase out smoking on all commuter trains running into London from a 30-mile radius, citing “customer demand”.

In 1991, all London buses were made smoke free. Smoking had been confined to the upper deck since the 1970s. The following year, National Express banned smoking on all its coaches.

In 1993, all NHS premises were declared smoke free, creating the huddle of bandaged and entubed smokers outside the front entrance to hospitals. J D Wetherspoon introduced smoke-free zones in its chain of London pubs and many offices, including the BBC, declared they would be smoke free.

By the mid-1990s, smokers were being corralled in ever smaller spaces. Non-smokers could breathe more freely. But it was not until July 2007, when the law banning smoking in all enclosed public spaces took effect, that non-smokers could finally open their lungs.

The expected protests – especially from drinkers who liked a fag with their Fosters – did not materialise. Public support for the ban was overwhelming. For the first time it was possible to enjoy a pint in a pub and go home without the accompanying stink of tobacco-infused clothes.

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