Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Smoking and the myth of the deluded drinker

I like reading The Pub Curmudgeon's blog and, given our widely different political perspectives, quite often agree with what he says. However, one issue that divides us is smoking in pubs. He recently wrote an item on state interference in individual choices, beginning with the sugar tax and moving onto smoking with the comment: All you silly people who pooh-poohed “first they came for the smokers”, where do you stand now?

Is he right? Have we non-smoking drinkers been led by the nose into a trap set by people using the template of the process that led to the smoking ban in pubs? Curmudgeon is a libertarian on the right, and though not a smoker himself, objected to the ban as an infringement of personal liberty. I'd rather hoped that, nearly nine years after the ban was introduced, that this was yesterday's issue; Curmudgeon has made it clear that he feels vindicated by the way things have turned out, more or less saying I told you so.

Contrary to what a few people have suggested in comments on this blog in the past, I don't subscribe totalitarian left wing politics such as we saw in the USSR. I don't advocate state regulation of every area of life, and I have stated a number of times on this blog that taxation should be used to raise funds to run the country and not as a method of social control (partly because it hits the poorest and weakest in society hardest, while leaving the better-off largely unaffected - in effect, a poll tax). In short, I'm closer to the libertarian rather than the totalitarian wing of the left, and my view of smoking is: smoke all you like, but I simply do not want to share your habit. Your right to smoke should not diminish my right to breathe smoke-free air.

In the build-up to the smoking ban, there was a lot of debate on the possible options: total ban, separate, self-contained smoking rooms, or the status quo. The fact that the status quo was never going to be a realistic option didn't stop some people arguing for it, including Curmudgeon who told us: "Let the market decide".

Could smoking in pubs ever have been an issue for the market? Can smoking in pubs be determined by the notion of personal choice?

When smoking was left to the market, as it was pre-July 2007, the market failed miserably. Despite the fact that a sizeable minority of pub-goers were non-smokers, the level of provision was minimal. By the time of the ban, the only non-smoking areas in our pubs in Southport that I knew about were in Wetherspoons. A separate area in an open plan pub doesn't really work as smoke can't read. My local experimented with a non-smoking room for a while, but abandoned it because the space was being underused in a very busy pub.

Market forces at work? We could realistically talk about market forces if smokers and non-smokers all drank separately in two separate clans, but they never did, and still don't. My own experience, which consists of 45 years of pub-going, is that, even when there was a non-smoking room, non-smokers would gravitate to the smoking areas to accommodate their smoking friends. This is not a situation the market dealt with; we know this because it didn't, and couldn't.

If rolled out to every pub that could accommodate a smoking room, the separate smoking room option would not work for very similar reasons: mixed groups of smokers and non-smokers would still not want to be split up, so we'd likely end up with a crammed smoking room with mixed groups of smokers and non-smokers, with other smokers in the smoke-free areas against their preferences. The fact that some could smoke in the pub, but others couldn't because the smoking room was full, would probably have been a source of discontent, with some smokers perhaps openly ignoring the ban: before 2007, I saw smokers deliberately light up in non-smoking areas of pubs, as I still do sometimes on buses, trains and other public areas where smoking is not allowed.

So how far does Curmudgeon's repeated claim that non-smoking drinkers ignored the precedent of the smoking ban actually stand up?

Firstly, a serious point: I'm heartily sick of Pastor Martin Niemöller's poem about the Holocaust being misappropriated for any reason; to do so is disrespectful in the extreme and trivialises one of the worst mass atrocities in human history.

Secondly, it simply isn't true. At the CAMRA national AGM in Cardiff in 2008, I went to a discussion group about what they called the neo-prohibitionists. The anti-alcohol campaigners had at that point been in business for quite a while; it wasn't a new phenomenon that arose after July 2007, and anyone who wasn't aware of what they were up to wasn't paying attention.

Despite all of this, should all drinkers have united behind the opposition to the smoking ban? I don't see how they could. If you prefer your air without smoke, how can you campaign for something that would retain it? Such a suggestion makes no sense at all. People were not being short-sighted; the employment of similar tactics against both smoking and drinking does not mean that the two different issues can automatically make common cause.

For 36 years I went to smoky pubs. I have had sinus problems all my life, and I suspect they have been exacerbated by second hand smoke. I also wear contact lenses. Pre-ban, campaigners for smoking in pubs didn't gave a toss about the effects that smoke can have on others. While it was all going their way, they could see no reason to make any accommodation with non-smokers. For them to have expected the people whose rights they regarded as unimportant to support them against the ban once it was likely to become reality really does take the biscuit. I have to emphasise here that I am not generalising about all smokers, most of whom I have not found to be selfish: only most of those who were vociferously opposed to any sort of ban.

It is all yesterday's issue anyway: six years ago, a survey of students showed that 90% were opposed to lifting the smoking ban; I doubt that percentage has gone down. If it pleases some people to see themselves as voices in the wilderness, modern day Cassandras condemned to tell the truth but never be believed, then fine, but it's best to see such delusions for what they are.


  1. When smoking in pubs was legal, smokers showed no consideration for the comfort of anyone else who perhaps didn’t want to breathe their smoke or go home stinking of it. Judging by the way they stand in the doorways of pubs now, blocking the way for anyone trying to get in or out, they still don’t.

    1. "When smoking in pubs was legal, smokers showed no consideration for the comfort of anyone else who perhaps didn’t want to breathe their smoke or go home stinking of it."

      So in what way was people doing something that was legal and generally accepted showing a lack of consideration for others? Should everyone have stopped smoking just because one prissy individual entered the room?

      I don't like drinking in pubs where there are screeching children running around. But I don't want to see it banned, although I would like to see more child-free areas.

      And, in the absence of any alternative provision, where are the smokers standing outside the door meant to go? Home?

  2. I appreciate you taking the trouble to write such a detailed response. As I've said before, I always find your blog interesting and we find plenty of agreement in our experience of beer and pubgoing. It's also good to see there are still some left-libertarians about ;-)

    I could write a book on this, but time is short, so I'll just make a handful of points:

    1. We've discussed this before, but my recollection is that, pre-ban, a substantial proportion of pubs had some kind of non-smoking provision, maybe around a third. Yes, wet-led working-class pubs were under-represented, but it certainly wasn't anywhere near as rare as you suggest. For example, the Griffin in Heaton Mersey near me, a classic Holt's boozer, had one of its five rooms as non-smoking. Obviously without a time machine I can't prove this.

    2. The market would have provided an answer, but based on what people *really* want, not what they say they want. Before the ban, most restaurants and pubs with dedicated dining areas were either entirely or mostly non-smoking. Nobody had forced them to do that - they had implemented it because it's what their customers asked for. Maybe the anti-smoking crusaders, if they really cared about pubs, should have used their efforts to campaign for more non-smoking provision rather than a total ban.

    3. It's an interesting moral question as to what extent the "most people drink with smoking friends" argument is justified as a reason for a ban. Nobody has to go in pubs (as opposed to eating places), and surely adults should be treated as rational actors who can make a decision not to go along with friends if they think they're leading them into a risky situation. And it's taking the argument to the extreme if it's used as justification for not permitting any kind of "collective" adult smoking, for example in dedicated smoking clubs, in which non-smokers were also allowed.

    It's also still very noticeable how, in many pubs, when the weather improves, pretty much the whole non-dining clientele, both smokers and non-smokers, migrates outside into the outdoor smoking area.

    4. This is certainly not a dead issue. It was wrong in 2007 and it's just as wrong now. It's not going away. Nine years after it came into effect, US Prohibition was still regarded as a permanent fixture, but the Great Depression swept it away.

    And, as reported by the Scottish Mail on Sunday, a majority of the population still support separate smoking rooms in pubs and clubs. Yes, i know that's on Simon Clark's blog, but the article isn't online and he provides a snapshot of it.

  3. Can either of you correct my thinking in that the smoking ban was brought in more as a work place health and safety effort rather than a customer led piece of legislation?

  4. I'm also a left-libertarian; I do prefer a smoke-free environment, but I can't see how my freedom of action is enhanced by the ban.

    The other way that 'the market' might have addressed the problem, given half a chance, is through the opening of new, smoke-free bars - something that was starting to happen before the ban. And didn't Spoons go smoke-free, not long before the ban came in - or am I imagining that?

    As for health & safety, if I'm remembering right, the policy in Labour's manifesto would have allowed pubs to convert to no-smoking if it was what the staff wanted. That policy (which I broadly support) would have been about workplace H&S. (I'm sceptical about the health effects of passive smoking for punters, but constant exposure to a smoky environment can't be good for anyone.) But the blanket ban which Labour brought in (and which nobody voted for, unless one of the other parties was advocating it) is just about driving down the number of people smoking.

    1. While the smoking ban was touted as health and safety legislation, the underlying motivation was always the restriction of smoking per se. Even accepting the "passive smoking" argument, smoking in pubs could have been restricted to separate rooms with self-closing doors and no bar counter or table service, in the same way as it is still permitted in hotel rooms (subject to the agreement of the hotel owner).

      And, talking of the market, if it hadn't happened, my guess would be that pretty much all of the new-wave craft beer bars would be entirely non-smoking. Thus opening up yet another division in the pub trade.

    2. A minority of Spoons went fully non-smoking in advance of the ban, but they backed away from making it universal as sales dropped off a cliff.

  5. The Blocked Dwarf23 March 2016 at 16:33

    First they came for those abusing Niemöller.
    Then they came for those "For evil to triumph' spouters.
    Next they came for the Hugo quoters.
    Finally they came for anyone typing "Godwin's Law LOL111!!"

    But they left me alone cos they were scared of the 4th hand smoke from my comments.

  6. The most daft non-smoking area I've seen was in the Biko Bar in Bradford University. A big one room pub the no smoking area was opposite the door on a raised area - running along the windows - so obviously all the smoked funnelled out of the windows via this area. Brain fart in action that one.

    In each instance it is always about denormalising behaviour which is, for the moment, legal.

  7. Given the state of ventilation technology, it's all rather academic whether it's a health issue or a personal choice issue. The fact is that smoking bans in pubs are nothing to do with health, and everything about stigmatising and 'denormalising' smokers in an effort to coerce them into giving up something they enjoy. Or to put it another way, it's an exercise in social engineering.

    There was never any justification for the smoking bans, so the myth of SHS was invented, with the explicit rider that ventilation systems could not be part of the equation, regardless of how efficient they might be.

    I left UK years before the smoking ban came into effect (thankfully), but one of my local haunts when I was living there was a hotel bar, owned by a somewhat anti-smoking landlord. However, rather than ban smoking and lose most of his customers, he installed an air scrubbing device, and it was so efficient that you could be sitting next to someone smoking a Cuban cigar and be unaware of it. And that was fifteen years ago. Ventilation technology has advanced in leaps and bounds since then. It would be completely feasible to have smoking in pubs with nobody (apart from the phobic anti-smokers for whom the mere sight of a ciggy is palpitation-inducing) being in the least bit inconvenienced.

    But of course, that wouldn't be allowed because it would change the carefully constructed 'untermenschen' status of smokers, which was the reason for the bans all along.

  8. I never really gave a shit about the "passive smoking" argument.

    I gave a lot of shits about the active smelling of smoke argument though.

    1. Before the smoking ban, every time I went to the pub, I had to incinerate all my clothing and flay off all my own skin. It's so much better now.

  9. Anyway, I've found a time machine of sorts, in the form of the 2007 Good Beer Guide, the last one before the ban came in. Let's see what it tells us, then...

    In Southport, there are ten entries, of which four - the Ainsdale Conservative Club, Berkely Arms, Bold Arms and Sir Henry Segrave, are shown as having non-smoking areas. That's 40%, so if anyone really insisted in having a drink in a smoke-free area in Southport, they'd have plenty of choice.

    Then, moving out into the nearby countryside, the four nearest pubs to Southport - the Derby Arms at Aughton, the Blue Bell at Barton, the Scarisbrick Arms and Downholland and the Legh Arms at Mere Brow, all had non-smoking areas.

    So I suggest your memory is perhaps a touch defective.

  10. There's no way I'd drink in the Tory Club, which is not close to where I live anyway. I did sometimes drink in the Berkeley, and there wasn't a non-smoking area. As it was a small one-room bar, it would have been impossible anyway: whoever wrote that entry was mistaken. The Sir Henry Segrave is a Spoons which I did state had a non-smoking area. The Bold is a hotel, not a pub; I was writing about pubs. I was clear that I was writing about my personal experience of pubs, i.e. those I frequented. At no point did I claim to have surveyed every pub in the area; what I have written about the many pubs I did frequent is completely correct; there is nothing wrong with my memory.

    I don't live in Lancashire and there is little or no public transport from where I live to the pubs there, so I hardly ever visit them, except recently in the car to deliver CAMRA mags.

    1. Which just underlines the point that it is dangerous to generalise from limited personal experience. I might do a bit more digging in the 2007 GBG and see what I can unearth...

    2. And in the 2007 GBG, 34 out of 73 entries in Cheshire (47%) are shown as having non-smoking areas. Rare my arse.

    3. These are GBG pubs, not all pubs. They are chosen because they are the best, not because they are average or typical.

      And you still haven't answered the question I posed on your blog. The reason is because you know you cannot.

  11. I thought I had answered it, but you didn't like the answer.


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