Bristol has banned smoking in two of its public squares. The bans are voluntary and it will be up to individuals and local businesses as to whether they comply. It is the first of its kind in the UK and will be watched closely by smokers and anti-smoking groups alike as a tentative test case for further outdoor public bans. I am not saying that all measures to improve public health are bad, the majority are good for us as a society, but with a smoking ban that could marginalise almost 20 per cent of our population that contribute over £12 billion in taxes a year to the economy in our public spaces, we are in danger of becoming less accepting.
We think of ourselves as an immensely tolerant society, and for the most part, we are. Britain is known as a safe place to live your life as you please. However, creeping steps taken towards dictating people’s lifestyles seem to be somewhat trivialising this tolerance into something more tokenistic. Tolerance only counts when it accepts something that many disapprove of. More and more we are seeing the marginalisation and demonisation of certain lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking alcohol and eating unhealthily. Admittedly these are problems that we as a society need to face, they harm our population and cost us money every year, but the insidious manner in which something can be thrust into the realm of public health and then instantly demonised to the point of an unfairness unbefitting our traditional tolerance has become worrying.
Our approach of badgering and patronising people is not a fair one.
It only takes a cursory glance across a selection of tabloid headlines outraged at the scourge of overweight people using the NHS or bemoaning the rise in excessive binge drinking, especially amongst students to see this culture in action. This is especially concerning when statistics show Britain has been consistently drinking less since 2004 after a brief rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s that sparked the fear-mongering “Binge Britain” tabloid campaign that too often spilled over into a demonisation of anybody who got drunk even occasionally. Since the indoor smoking ban was introduced in 2007, rates of smoking have decreased. People who smoke are well aware that the habit is bad for them and on average 70 per cent want to quit but many are also perfectly happy to continue, at least for the time being. I myself was happy to continue smoking until the 26th of January, which was my first day of not smoking since I started at 16. The decision to stop was purely my own. I was well aware of the facts and health dangers of smoking before I started and if I’m being honest no single public health campaign or ban ever made me really stop and think about my habit. This may not be the same for all smokers, but the only time I considered stopping was when I was good and ready myself.
That said, since the smoking ban came into force in 2007 the rate of people giving up smoking has increased dramatically – I started smoking after the ban so suddenly being unable to smoke inside never affected me. Immediately after the number of adults smoking in Britain fell by half a percentage point per year, in recent years this has doubled to around a whole percentage point. This is good news, and arguably proof that the indoor smoking ban has worked. Less people are also taking up the habit than ever before, it is not just people giving up that are reducing the numbers.
However just because the indoor ban helped cause a drop in numbers does not mean that an outdoor ban would necessarily faster reduce the number of smokers. There are countless other factors in determining when someone will stop smoking such as personal experience, cost, social influence from family or friends or their health. Surveys have shown that around 70 per cent of smokers actually do want to stop but making the decision to try and do so is very much a personal one. It is often and easily forgotten by many people that nicotine is an extremely addictive drug and first and foremost what is needed to kick the habit is will power, not to be shouted at and pushed out of a public space.
We need to recognise as a society that the issue of smoking is an extremely complex one. We are barely 40 years from a time where half of the population smoked. Nicotine is not an easy drug to give up and the process is very much personal to each individual. Public spaces belong to smokers too, and the considerable tax they generate pays for their upkeep. With talk of bans and prohibition we are in danger of losing the tolerance and acceptance that benefits our society so much.