I was quite cheered by my trip to London. I’d expected London, with its many landlocked pubs, to be one vast joyless No Smoking zone, where I’d see only one or two smokers lurking down alleyways here and there.
In the event, people were smoking openly almost everywhere, except where it was illegal. They were walking along the streets, or sitting outside cafes, or driving cars, and they were all unselfconsciously smoking, young and old. People weren’t in the least bit ashamed to be seen smoking.
And today I realised that this meant that smoking hadn’t been ‘denormalised’ at all. When something has been ‘denormalised’, people won’t do it because it’s ‘not normal’. But I think that for something to have been thus ‘denormalised’, more or less everyone has to stop doing it, so that maybe only one in a hundred people will light up, and it becomes possible for the ‘hard core’ of smokers to be confronted by antismokers.
But in London, there were simply far too many smokers for any antismoker to have summoned up the nerve to demand that they stop smoking. When I got out of the train at Paddington, and headed outside after three ‘smoke-free’ hours on the train, I came face to face with about 50 people already out there. It was simply too crowded. Nobody would have dared to take on such numbers.
And, of course, the more people that can be seen smoking, the more normal it continues to be to smoke. Those fifty people outside Paddington station probably hadn’t arranged on Facebook to meet up there. and they probably said nothing at all to each other, but they were helping and supporting each other anyway. They weren’t ‘organised’. But they didn’t need to be.
And antismokers never seem to go face to face, anyway. They always use proxies to do their dirty work for them: they invoke the law and its law enforcement agencies.
And anyway, I also gained the sense that London’s cafes were deliberately helping out smokers, with numerous chairs and tables outside. It looked to me like there was an unspoken, informal passive resistance movement in operation. By lighting up on the streets, London’s smokers were helping keep smoking normal and acceptable for other smokers, and the cafes were helping them out too. And maybe people were also helping out in other ways which I didn’t notice. Perhaps it was an echo of the old London ‘blitz spirit’: they’d endured bombs, and they could endure smoking bans too.
I came away with the sense that Tobacco Control wasn’t getting anywhere ‘denormalising’ smoking in London. People were obeying the letter of the law, but not the mean and heartless spirit of it.
And really the only weapon the antismokers have is the law. They’re trying to create a new non-smoking normality by using the blunt instrument of the law. They don’t have a grass root antismoking movement – not in London, anyway -, and so the law is their only recourse.
And I don’t believe that the state or Tobacco Control can determine what is and isn’t ‘normal’. Ordinary people, not bureaucrats, decide for themselves about things like that. The state could set out, for example, to ‘denormalise’ rock music, by making public places ‘rock-music-free’ except for approved (presumably classical) music. But if they liked rock music, people would listen to it anyway, even if it was banned in pubs and cafes, and never played on radio or TV. And people actually do like smoking in exactly the same way that they like rock music, and beer, and jeans, and T-shirts, and burgers. You can’t make people dislike what they happen to actually like.
I don’t know why anyone ever tries.
I’m sure that Tobacco Control wants to extend the UK smoking ban to the streets and parks – but there’s little sense that the government wants to go down that line. So instead they’re pushing for display bans, and plain packaging, which hardly create any real new restrictions at all. They’re using the law, as always, but in rather minor and ineffective ways.
And I began to wonder yesterday how long it can go on like this. It seems to me that there must come a point when people in authority will start saying that ‘denormalisation’ obviously isn’t working, and smokers are carrying on smoking, and it’s just as normal as it ever was, so what’s the point of wasting money on it.
Perhaps the end will come when politicians like Nigel Farage and UKIP begin to start making real headway on an openly pro-smoking platform, and the main parties start to feel that they need to court the smoking voter.
If they do, they’ll never get my vote. Not in a hundred years those bastards won’t.