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The most insincere question in the English language is “do you mind if I smoke?” For younger readers, this is what people used to say to friends and colleagues shortly before spoiling an evening out or some other occasion. What it actually means is “allow me to exploit your very British reluctance to make a scene, so that I can obtain your approval for my act of selfishness.”

Thanks to successive smoking bans, it’s a phrase that’s rarely heard these days. On public transport, in the workplace and within enclosed public venues, the question simply does not arise. Smokers may feel their  freedoms have been curtailed, but for the rest of us it’s a liberation.

The law recognises what the smokers’ lobby refuses to, which is that smokers cannot be trusted to abide by voluntary codes of considerate behaviour. Given the leeway, they are certain to impose their smoke and ash on others – not every smoker, of course, but as a group.

This doesn’t mean that smokers are generally bad people – just that, by definition, they’re in the grip of an irrational habit. Moreover, the mere act of smoking makes unwilling participants of anyone in the vicinity. As such smoking is a special case – it’s not as if drinkers force alcohol down the throats of passers-by (not usually anyway), nor does the act of over-eating result in the passive consumption of cake.

In claiming the mantle of victimhood, the smokers’ lobby makes the mistake that this all about them. It really isn’t. The measures passed by Parliament with the strong support of the public are anti-smoking not anti-smoker. It is the habit not the people that society is protecting itself from.

The question now is how much further the law needs to go. Earlier this month, the London Health Commission called for a ban on smoking in public parks and other open spaces. Meanwhile, the Surfers Against Sewage campaign group wants smoking banned on “key beaches”:

“4.5 trillion cigarette butts enter the environment every year. Inevitably a proportion will be discarded or end up on our beaches where they leach toxic chemicals into the environment and partially breakdown into tiny plastic fibres which are then ingested by marine animals causing, blockages, starvation and inflammation. Filters are comprised of cellulose acetate (not paper). Concentrated within discarded filters are deposits of tars and chemicals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic, which leach toxic chemicals out into the surrounding seawater; or directly into any organism who ingests them. One cigarette filter has enough toxins to kill water fleas in 8 litres of water.”

Unsurprisingly, the smokers’ lobby believes that a ban on smoking in non-enclosed public spaces would be an outrage. According to the BBC, the director of FOREST had this to say:

“There’s no health risk to anyone other than the smoker. If you don’t like the smell, walk away.”

This is the sort of attitude that gets up the nose of non-smokers. If you’re sitting on a park bench, enjoying the fresh air, and someone sits down next to you and lights-up: why should it be your problem? The responsibility should be on the smoker to ensure that their smoke doesn’t end up in someone else’s face.

As for the littering issue on beaches (and just about everywhere else), the answer is zero tolerance for all litter-bugs including smokers. If dog owners can be expected to clean-up after their animals, then smokers should be expected to clean-up after themselves – and, yes, that does include cigarette butts and ash.

So, assuming that smokers can be trusted not to litter and not to rob others of the fresh air they’ve come to enjoy, we can do without a ban on smoking in open-air public spaces.

And yet, in time, it will probably happen. Writing for the Financial Times, David Hockney puts the blame on “prim do-gooders” and “fanatical anti-smokers”:

“I know how utterly irrational they are. What is worrying is that there are lots of people in Britain who seem to think that they are well within their rights. It’s hardly a symbol of the fair-mindedness and tolerance that British like to present to the rest of the world. Mean-spirited and cruel, more likely.” 

Yet the idea of the smoker as victim obscures a history (much of it recent) in which non-smokers were the victims – forced to endure the lingering, eye-reddening, filthy stink of cigarettes not just on fleeting occasions, but as an everyday dose of misery.

This was the experience of millions of ordinary Britons (as it still is within the privacy of countless homes). Looking back at what was done to them, what many non-smokers feel is an enduring sense of injustice. As far as I know, there’s never been any meaningful apology from the tobacco industry for all the years in which we were forced to inhale their vile product.

To be frank, the desire to push our tormentors even further away from us isn’t just about defending ourselves, but getting our own back too. Like fresh air, revenge is sweet.

I’m not defending this attitude for a moment, but it does explain why the smokers’ lobby keeps on losing.

38 comments for: Heresy of the week: Tolerance for smokers should start with an apology to non-smokers

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