If nothing else has changed over the past 10 years, at least one thing has. And it is that there are a lot more people speaking up against smoking bans now than there were 10 years ago.
I should know, because I’m one of them. And I’m by no means a lone voice. There are quite a lot of us. We don’t agree about everything. In fact we may hardly agree about anything. But we’re all united in our loathing of smoking bans.
But back in 2004 or 2005, there weren’t any of us. There was only Forest.
And I think that meant that when the UK government began considering introducing a smoking ban back in 2004 (or earlier), they couldn’t see very much opposition to it. Most smokers thought that smoking was bad for them, didn’t they? Many of them wanted to give up smoking, didn’t they? Wouldn’t it be a public service to help the dwindling remnant of smokers quit the filthy habit? What was there to lose with the simple and enlightened measure of just banning smoking almost everywhere? After 10 years or so of a smoking ban, smoking prevalence would probably have fallen from 20% to 5%, or even less. And there’d be lots of grateful smokers, glad to have been saved from themselves by enlightened, progressive government.
And if there was next to no opposition to it, there was plenty of support for it. The WHO was behind it. And so was the medical profession. And campaigning organisations like ASH. And any number of pundits and experts. Smoking had already been banned on the BBC. All the great and the good were of one voice in condemning smoking.
Is it really any wonder that parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a smoking ban, and even passed amendments banning smoking in private clubs and in wet-led pubs that didn’t serve food? Is it any surprise that 90% of enlightened, progressive Labour MPs, and 95% of even more enlightened and progressive Lib Dem MPs, voted to ban smoking? Or that even over 30% of unenlightened, backward Conservative MPs had somehow managed to faintly see the light, and voted for the ban as well? And didn’t they all noisily congratulate themselves afterwards, as if they’d just abolished slavery or something? After all, isn’t smoking a form of slavery – to nicotine?
But 10 years on, smoking prevalence remains only slightly lower than it was before the ban, and it has only really fallen because many smokers have switched to smoking e-cigarettes rather than cigarettes and pipes. And this is probably something that would have happened if there had been no smoking ban at all.
And if there had been no smoking ban at all, most likely 12,000 pubs wouldn’t have closed their doors over the past 10 years.
Ten years on, it seems safe to say that things didn’t go the way they were expected to go. ASH and co may claim it’s all been a great success, but anyone who has one or two eyes in their head can still see all the smokers outside the pubs, and still count the closed and shuttered pubs and clubs.
And, perhaps I’m wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be quite the euphoria in the political classes that there was ten years ago. I haven’t heard Tony Blair trying to defend his record as Prime Minister by saying that, well, Iraq might have been a bit of a disaster, but the smoking ban was a great success. None of them ever seems to mention it. Wouldn’t they be still shouting it from the roof tops if they’d thought it’d been the great success they all thought it was going to be?
Perhaps some of them also noticed that the political phenomenon of UKIP was led by a man who was an ostentatious smoker and drinker.
A couple of days ago Dick Puddlecote reported that hasn’t been a Tobacco Control Plan for England for a year and a half. In the comments underneath, I ventured to suggest that this might be because the government has no wish for one. The very fact that there is now no plan – for what to do next to make life even harder for smokers – is surely evidence of a certain loss of enthusiasm within government for further antismoking measures, is it not? Wouldn’t they have a plan by now if they wanted one? In the same piece it’s reported that
“Over the past three years there have been major cuts to English local authority budgets for stop smoking services and tobacco control work. Budgets for stop smoking services, which offer smokers their best chance to quit, were cut in three fifths (59%) of local authorities in 2016/17, following cuts in two fifths (39%) of local authorities the year before. In some areas, specialist stop smoking services have been decommissioned altogether. These budget cuts are principally due to reductions in the public health grant and to wider central government cuts to local authority budgets.”
The plans are drying up. And the money is drying up too.
Add also something that Simon Clark regularly mentions: the failure of ASH’s Deborah Arnott to collect a well-deserved gong in the New Year’s honours. Wouldn’t she have collected one if they thought she deserved one? And doesn’t that mean that the government doesn’t actually believe she deserves one?
I think also that the Guardian’s very even-handed coverage of the 10th anniversary of the smoking ban last Saturday suggested that the editors of the Guardian wanted to listen to both sides of the debate (something I couldn’t believe was happening), and were well aware that there were two sides. They did what a newspaper should do, and invited responses to a questionnaire. And if they weren’t fully aware who the C F Davis who replied (and whose response they partially but faithfully published) might have been, Deborah Arnott would have known very well who he was, and was probably very shocked to see something written by him appearing in her favourite newspaper.
I will no doubt be told that I’m being over-optimistic by my more sanguine readers, but add it all up, and it all surely points to a slow but steady retreat by the political class from the positions they occupied 10 years ago.
The Iraq war was initially hailed as a great success, but the consensus view now seems to be that it was a catastrophic disaster. How long is it going to be before the same thing happens with the smoking ban, and what was initially hailed as a great success is gradually recognised to have been a catastrophic disaster?
For all those closed pubs, and the smokers outside them clinging onto them like shipwrecked sailors to upturned lifeboats, is only the tip of the iceberg of all the damage that has been done. There has been colossal social damage done, in lost friendships, shattered communities, and divided families. There has been immense institutional damage, as people have ceased to believe experts and pundits in the medical profession and elsewhere. Nobody has even yet begun to assess the scale of the social, economic, and political damage that has been done.
And not just here in Britain, but all over the world.