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.