The news isn’t terribly cheery, but in one respect it is a great day. The smoking ban came into effect this morning, and I think the country is now a better place.
Norm and others have argued that it’s illiberal: that the theoretical possibility of airtight rooms for smokers, which would ensure nobody else is affected, means that banning smoking is an infringement of a liberty that does no harm to others. I suppose that’s true in theory, but is it really possible in practice? An obvious objection is that non-smoking staff would still have to enter the rooms, to which the response is the staff don’t have to work there if they don’t want to. This is weak, in my view. I’m supposed to avoid getting an otherwise good job because the environment might poison me? And this is my problem? Isn’t this an infringement of the liberty to work without being physically harmed? What’s the difference between this and direct violence? Should we allow hypothetical ‘fight clubs’ where the people are free to beat each other up, and the staff should be expected to take it too, or they can work elsewhere?
Plus, there are more than adequate public health reasons for the ban. Smoking causes 100,000 premature deaths a year, and 50% of smokers will be killed by the habit. Sure, people are free to risk bringing about their premature deaths if they want to, but I’d say there’s a moral duty to make sure they know what they’re doing. Taking measures to prevent people harming themselves isn’t unreasonable: banning it completely may step into civil liberties territory (although I’ve yet to be convinced there’s no case for banning it inside houses containing children), but a ban in public places is surely a mild, and blindingly obvious, step for any government with a duty to protect its citizens.
Even if you do the balancing acts and find it is illiberal, I don’t care. The public health benefits and the ability to socialise without being surrounded by smoke far, far outweigh any possible downside, in my view. It’s mildly disappointing that a Labour government implemented it despite themselves, rather than making a proper stand, but that’s a minor thing. I am, as you might have gathered, very happy about it 🙂