Ten years ago, the UK smoking ban was hailed as a great success more or less from Day One.
And maybe for Tobacco Control it was indeed a great success. They’d gradually been introducing smoking bans. I remember when smoking was banned on the London Underground circa 1970. And then it was progressively banned on British Rail, with the numbers of smoking carriages being slowly reduced to zero. And there was bus smoking ban as well. And the cinema smoking ban. It was as if Tobacco Control had a long list of places where smoking was to be banned, and over several decades it slowly went through the list, checking each one off. Underground: check. Trains: check. Buses: check. Cinemas: check.
The big one, of course, was the 2007 smoking ban in all enclosed public spaces. And that went off successfully too. There were no big protests. The smokers obediently trooped out of the pubs and cafes and restaurants with barely a single muttered complaint. Job done. Game over.
I suppose that there remain a couple more places where smoking has yet to be banned. Firstly, in people’s own homes. And secondly and lastly, everywhere else. The checkboxes have yet to be ticked on those two. But they’re already at work on the next set of salami slice bans, with public housing home smoking bans gradually being introduced. The toughest nut will be to ban smoking in detached private houses.
And Deborah Arnott has now declared that outdoor smoking also poses a health threat, and so there will be ever-expanding outdoor smoking areas.
And then there’ll be the wave of sugar bans, alcohol bans, salt bans, fat bans. They’ve already started in schools. And the sugar bowls vanished from restaurant tables a long time ago. And new lists of places to ban stuff, complete with checkboxes, are already being finalised and printed, complete with No Sugar, No Salt, No alcohol, No Fat signs to stick on the wall next to the No Smoking signs.
In some ways I was a bit puzzled that the 10th anniversary of the UK smoking ban wasn’t met with long self-congratulatory articles by prominent tobacco controllers. There were hardly any. But that’s really because the UK smoking ban had already been declared a great success 10 years ago. It was a great success because they’d succeeded in banning smoking in enclosed public spaces, and they’d ticked the checkbox. They’d done what they wanted to do, and now they were moving further down the list.
It was left to other people to consider whether the 2007 smoking ban really had been a success. Even the Guardian ran an article about it, including a fragment written by me about some of the consequences of the ban.
But Tobacco Control doesn’t do consequences. As far as they are concerned, there are no consequences whatsoever to anything they do. They don’t believe that any pubs at all closed as a consequence of the 2007 smoking ban. Or that communities and friendships were shattered, or smokers set against antismokers. They’d ticked pretty much all the checkboxes, and that was the only thing that mattered.
But I think there are consequences to everything. And that these consequences spread like ripples in all directions, and the ripples spread and widen indefinitely. And as more ripples are added, the spreading ripples create interference patterns with standing waves that get bigger and bigger and bigger.
I think that the 2007 UK smoking ban created a lot of ripples, going in all directions, and we’re still seeing the effects gradually unfolding. And what was once a placid millpond now has waves all over it. The millpond has been getting slowly rougher and rougher with every new checkbox that’s ticked.
The Smoky Drinky Bar is a surprise new wave in the heaving millpond. It’s a wave that has splashed over the banks and started a little trickle of water in a new and unexpected direction. Tobacco Control is going to have to ban smoking in a completely new arena: online bars filled with virtual smoke. And that means a brand new checkbox for them to tick some day.
I think the Smoky Drinky Bar is going to be a great success. It may have just a thin trickle of visitors at the moment, but it’ll soon become a stream, and then a torrent. I think there are going to be more and more of these bars springing up, overflowing with visitors, all smoking and drinking and talking.
And I wonder whether the appearance in recent months of stars and starlets and singers and celebrities openly smoking, and flouting smoking bans (and looking dead sexy while they’re doing it), is another surprise wave that’s spilled out of the turbulent, foaming millpond, and started another little stream heading off in a quite different direction.
What are Tobacco Control going to do about this little revolt? The EU smoking ban has provision for show trials of prominent offenders:
Shock trials: The EU states will be encouraged to carry out sensationalist prosecutions designed to shock the public. Celebrities who smoke will also be targeted and exposed publicly as smoking offenders. The document states that if individuals in the public eye have deliberately disregarded the law and this is publicly known, the authorities will demonstrate their commitment to and the seriousness of the legislation by reacting with rigorous and speedy measures, attracting the widest possible public attention.
These are just two small revolts that have broken out in recent months. And they’re both consequences of smoking bans. Neither would have happened without some previous smoking ban to kickstart them.
How many other little revolts are brewing?
In fact, the unexpected appearance of e-cigarettes was another freak wave thrown up by the millpond. Nobody saw that revolt coming, nor the subsequent flood of competing electronic devices. Tobacco Control’s knee-jerk reaction has been to do the only thing it knows how to do: ban them.
The growing rash of innovative little revolts mean that Tobacco Control is going to have to set out to ban more and more things. I’m looking forward to the ban on sucking little white hollow tubes. And the ban on cigarette rings, which make it look like someone is permanently holding a cigarette, even though they’re not. Each one will add to a lengthening list of things that Tobacco Control wants to ban, and each will have a new checkbox beside it. And instead of getting shorter, the list will only get longer.