Simon Clark is director of the smokers’ rights group, Forest.
When did local authorities become such busybodies, interfering in the lifestyles of council staff and the local people they are supposed to represent? Polls conducted by Populus, for Forest, have consistently shown that compared to issues like addressing crime and anti-social behaviour, or investing in roads and other infrastructure, the public does not consider tackling smoking, alcohol misuse, or obesity, to be a priority for local government. Despite this, local authorities are increasingly targeting adults who smoke, restricting or even banning the habit for council employees during working hours, or extending smoking bans to outdoor areas where there is no evidence of risk to non-smokers, including children.
Nine years ago things looked a little different. When a lone councillor in Stony Stratford suggested a ban on smoking throughout this small Buckinghamshire town, few people took him seriously. Indeed, for many people, he was a figure of fun. Sunday Times columnist, Rod Liddle, a former editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, told him:
“Do you realise there’s not a single person in Stony Stratford who’s in favour of your plan? We’ve trawled the streets. We’ve walked up and down. We haven’t found a single person who doesn’t think that it’s a fatuous idea.”
Even his fellow councillors thought the proposal was a step too far and resoundingly rejected it.
Although prohibition remains a dream for Britain’s tobacco control industry, an increasing number of local authorities have nevertheless been emboldened to introduce strict new measures designed to dictate where and when adults can light up. Indeed, as a new Forest report makes clear, many councillors now believe it is perfectly acceptable to micro-manage the lives not only of their own staff but also members of the public who voted them into office.
Interestingly, it seems to make very little difference whether a council is run by Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, or, in Scotland, the Scottish National Party. Denying adults the right to choose, and extinguishing personal freedoms, is not restricted to one party. Instead, councillors of all political persuasions and none, are more than happy to embrace an increasingly interventionist agenda, ignoring the fact that if an adult chooses to smoke without breaking the law it is none of their business.
What is equally clear, as the report’s author, Josie Appleton, points out, is that anti-smoking campaigns are no longer exclusively about health. The risks of smoking have been known for decades, hence the steep fall in smoking rates long before government intervened to ban smoking in all enclosed public spaces, prohibit the display of tobacco in shops, or introduce standardised packaging of tobacco. Today smoking cessation has become a moral crusade. The tobacco control industry even has a word for it – ‘smokefree’. Smoking is not merely unhealthy, it’s ‘bad’, while not smoking is ‘good’ and virtuous.
Public Health England has been targeted for serious criticism during the coronavirus crisis, and justifiably so. Following its launch in 2013, PHE became so focussed on tackling people’s lifestyle – including our eating, drinking and smoking habits – officials completely lost sight of their primary function which was to protect the nation from infectious diseases over which individuals have little or no control.
Local authorities too have strayed far from their traditional role into areas in which they have little or no business. According to Appleton’s research, 192 councils (68 per cent of those that responded to her Freedom of Information requests) have a policy restricting or banning smoking at work, while almost a third now restrict smoking in open air public spaces, including children’s play areas, parks, beaches, council campuses or open air public events, with some of these bans enforced with fixed penalty notices.
Forty-nine councils ban cigarette breaks entirely, even if workers clock off, while a further 87 councils require workers to clock off or to obtain permission from a manager. In total, 113 councils currently ban smoking outside council buildings with some requiring employees to leave the site entirely or stand up to 50 metres from a council building to light up.
Whether adults choose to smoke is a matter for them and their nearest and dearest. It has nothing to do with local government. Thankfully, as the responses to this new research demonstrate, many councils do still adopt a common sense approach to the habit. A complete ban on smoking by council staff during working hours is not yet the norm, nor are bans on smoking in council-owned parks and other outdoor areas where the health risk to non-smokers can be rated somewhere between insignificant and zero. Nevertheless, the trend towards further intervention is enough to worry those of us who value individual freedom and personal responsibility.
In recent weeks we’ve heard a lot about government overreach in relation to the way ministers have responded to the coronavirus. If there’s one group familiar with government overreach– at national and local level – it’s smokers. As one participant in a recent Forest webinar noted, “Smokers have been in lockdown since 2007.” He was referring to the year smoking was banned in every pub and club in the country and although it may be a stretch to compare the two situations, smokers know all about enforced isolation.
Councillors and local authority chief executives should therefore think twice before giving the green light to further intrusions into the lives of millions of ordinary people who are fed up with being dictated to by an army of politicians and public health professionals. The ‘smokefree’ utopia envisaged by many anti-smoking campaigners may appear benign and caring to some (including, I suspect, many readers of ConservativeHome). In reality however a ‘smokefree’ world will only be achieved by removing people’s freedom to think for themselves and make their own choices, so be careful what you wish for.