Monday, December 10, 2007

Smoke and mirrors

As a regular visitor to Ireland I have been delighted with the no smoking laws that were introduced a few years ago. One can eat and drink in clean air and go home with clean clothes, with the further advantage (yes advantage) that my wife will now come with me to the pub, for she is happy to drive me home, having been put off in the past, and in England, by being even more sensitive to the smell than I am. There was the quaint quirk of being allowed to smoke on the boat only until it entered Irish territorial waters.

Now, from a Sunday morning a few months ago (at 6am to avoid confusing Saturday night owls), the same rules apply in England, the last country in the Union to introduce them. And I find myself with mixed feelings. It comes down to the old problem of the English way of doing things. We seem constitutionally incapable of finding a middle ground, of agreeing to differ, and most of all of trusting anyone to use their common sense. So now every workplace and public building that is deemed an enclosed place must prohibit smoking and eject those who dare to. The definition of enclosed space has been tightly and comprehensively drawn, including company cars (unless a soft top with the roof down), private cars on company business (a workplace), bus shelters that have sides and even the vast expanse of King’s Cross station. I understand that the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff is also covered when the roof is closed, if you follow me. A further twist became apparent the other day when I attended a dinner at which the loyal toast was proposed but without the traditional addendum.

As an aside, the law has led to a new word, smokefree, entering the English language. It will not be going into my personal spell checker additions any more than will its cousin freefrom, that one now sees labelling the aisles of supermarkets.

One might have thought that a universal ban like this would need to be stated once, with a few reminders perhaps at its inception and would then become part of the public’s background knowledge, like driving on the left or not looking for gas leaks with a naked light. Children would learn about it at their mother’s knee (smoking allowed so long as the instruction took place in a private house) and be fully conversant with the rules by the age of five or so. But no, under New Labour you cannot tell people something only once – they would have been useless in occupied France – and every building, even churches, must now have a prominent notice at each entrance and more indoors. One result is a rash of ugly home made signs, run up on an inkjet printer and crudely laminated to protect them from the rain and fixed to doorposts with a drawing pin. Our pub has one such while inside there are no longer ashtrays in which to put one’s empty crisp or nut packets. This pub has few customers and a landlord who smokes heavily, giving me my only laugh in relation to the ban when I passed by and saw him standing outside having a quiet puff safe in the knowledge that he was unlikely to be keeping a customer from his pint.

The new rules are not there to discourage smokers, whatever the do-gooders may say. No smoker, except perhaps a deaf, blind, illiterate hermit, can possibly be in any doubt that smoking is likely to damage his health. Those who want to smoke will, if perhaps to a lesser extent by reason of reduced opportunity. This is easily demonstrated just outside the main entrance to our local hospital, where the in-patients gather in their dressing gowns, some still attached to their drips, for a restorative drag away from the haunt of the superbug. The authorities have had to move them on, like loitering hoodies in the towns, to enable visitors to get inside unpolluted.

The rules are ostensibly to reduce ‘passive’ smoking, a term coined as a handy shorthand for inhaling other people’s smoke, the risks of which have been much debated even if its unpleasantness is accepted. Since non-smokers cannot be in any less doubt than smokers of the dangers of the noxious weed it follows that, at least for adults in pubs, passive smoking is a largely voluntary activity endured as an accepted risk. Am I being inconsistent in being still firmly with those who would like to be able to visit a smoke free pub and fully supporting workers’ desire, now made a right, for a smoke free workplace while objecting to the draconian, clumsy and bossy way it has been implemented? If not, what is different in Ireland? I think the answer is in the bossiness. While waiting for a bus at Heathrow recently I noticed a no smoking sign (not just a reminder sign but an edict, with text) in the bus shelter. This structure had a roof and one side. The other side and both ends were open. Did it really need to be a non smoking area? In a much more sinister example a Virgin flight to the Caribbean recently was returned to Heathrow after an hour and a half in the air because someone had been detected smoking in a lavatory. Who paid for the wasted fuel and extra landing fee? Could the offender not have been left to the mercy of the local authorities on landing? Or simply locked in?

So once again we are being protected from ourselves, a true hallmark of New Labour. No decision too small that it can’t be taken for us and none of us with enough common sense or initiative that we can be spared the how as well as the what and the why.