By Sofie Buckland
Sunday 1 July saw the introduction of the controversial “smoking ban”, outlawing smoking in “enclosed public spaces” (train station platforms as well as buildings, for example) and workplaces. As a smoker it’s a little irritating to no longer be able to enjoy a smoke with a pint, but there’s little justification socialists can give for not supporting a ban — passive smoking is really quite obviously harmful, whatever the tobacco company sponsored research might say, and workers shouldn’t be subject to it on the job.
The “liberal” left view, characterised by Christopher Hitchens in the Guardian, seems to be that bar and restaurant workers should just get another job if they don’t like it — ignoring the fact these workers are often the most vulnerable; where do they suggest unskilled bar workers go if all bars allow smoking? Forcing workers to choose between their health and their job is just wrong, with a logic that could be applied to any health and safety demand — although health and safety is hardly the government’s rationale for bringing in the ban
Whilst I’m not in favour of agitating against this ban, there are problems with it. The government claims that 600,000 smokers will give up because of it, which is no bad thing. However, they back this up with figures on how much the NHS will save treating smoking-related diseases — not so much “give up, it’s bad for you” and “give up, we’re not prepared to fund the NHS properly”. Like the requirement to lose weight before being treated for some conditions, linking availability of treatment to certain lifestyle changes somewhat undermines the idea of a universal health service, not to mention exposing the government’s concern with reducing the cost of the NHS.
There’s also an issue of workers’ control — why ban smoking rooms from offices when they could be organised so no non-smoker had to clean them? In reality, bosses are probably more concerned with accommodating smoking habits into the working day (and the amount of time not working that implies) than with their employees’ health. Not smoking in workplaces like offices appears to have been much less controversial than not smoking in pubs — probably because most people don’t think of pubs as workplaces, but places to go to get away from work.
So what’s the next step? It looks like outlawing smoking in cars may follow the public spaces ban, with suggestions by some of the press that banning tobacco entirely might be on the cards. Although if the government was genuinely serious about protecting public health it would make sense (from a nanny state point of view, anyway), a ban on tobacco is extremely unlikely — it’s neither in the interests of government, in terms of tax revenue from cigarettes, or the interests of the huge tobacco industry. And clearly, these things are far more important to the Labour government, when you really get down to it, than public health, no matter what their press releases say.