The smoking ban turns ten. What did it really achieve?

Saturday sees the tenth anniversary of the smoking ban in England. A curse or a blessing depending on your point of view, July 1st 2007 was – for me – the day when the paternalism of the ‘public health’ lobby became overtly coercive.

I was a smoker in those days, but despite quitting five years ago I still loathe this vindictive piece of legislation as much as ever. Perhaps it’s because it offends my principles, or perhaps because it has morphed into a vaping ban in many venues, but the smoking ban is the wound that won’t heal.

The most obvious adverse consequence of the smoking ban was the destruction of a large part of Britain’s nighttime economy, as Rob Lyons has shown in his recent report. The anti-smoking lobbyists who claimed that the ban would lead to a renaissance for pubs have been strangely quiet on this subject since the ‘temporary’ drop in sales seen in the summer of 2007 (which was initially blamed on wet weather) turned into a permanent slump.

Forced to exclude many of their best customers, pubs closed in their thousands. Traditional ‘wet led’ (ie. non-gastro) pubs – which Labour had promised to exclude from the ban in its 2005 manifesto – were worst hit. Bingo halls, snooker clubs, nightclubs and working men’s clubs also took an unprecedented battering. More than a third of our bingo halls and nearly half our nightclubs have closed since 2006. The rate of closure for working men’s clubs trebled within months of the ban being introduced and, as Stephen Hendry says, ‘you would be hard pressed to find a local snooker club these days. They used to be on every street.’

Changing tastes? Cheap supermarket booze? Home entertainment? No doubt there are many factors behind the decline of these establishments. But tastes do not change overnight, whereas the collapse of Britain’s nightlife can be dated very precisely to midnight on July 1st 2007. It is no coincidence that the share price of the biggest pub chains peaked in June 2007 before going into freefall. They have never recovered, and whilst many venues have survived and some have prospered in the last decade, thousands of predominantly working class drinking establishments were dealt a fatal blow by the smoking ban.

The number of closures speaks for itself but behind the closures there are millions of people whose lives have been made more miserable. Smokers who used to enjoy going to the bingo or drinking in the pub now play online and drink at home. Across the country, the social capital of whole communities has been drained. Many of the pubs that survived are shadows of their former selves, closing in the daytime and acting as ersatz restaurants in the evenings. The older regulars who used to prop up the bar in the afternoon are now in front of their televisions, alone.

Secondhand smoke has negative externalities, or so we are told, but pubs have positive externalities which cannot be enjoyed by anyone, whether they smoke or not, when they are empty and soulless, let alone when they are closed for good. Barworkers might question the benefits of the ban when they are in a smoke-free Jobcentre Plus.

And what are the benefits? The ban was sold to us with claims about secondhand smoke that were largely fictitious. Thirty years of epidemiology had produced dozens of studies, mostly looking at the health of nonsmoking women who were married to smokers, but they amounted to a mish-mash of weak and contradictory findings, with relative risks hovering around 1.0 (ie. nothing). If you closed one eye and squinted, some seemed to imply a slight increase in risk while others implied a slight reduction. The vast majority were statistically insignificant and the evidence on passive smoking in the workplace was even weaker.

If passive smoking had not been such a useful weapon in the war against active smoking, epidemiologists would have abandoned this line of research by the end of the 1980s having concluded that there was noting to see. Instead, as Dr James LeFanu wrote in Panic Nation, ‘statistical alchemy’ was employed to ‘transform this sow’s ear of contradictory and anomalous studies into the silk purse of compelling evidence that would eventually compel the Labour government to ban smoking in public places’.

My purpose in mentioning this is not to reopen the debate about passive smoking (anti-smoking campaigners angrily insist that the debate is over), but to note that the legacy of this ‘statistical alchemy’ still hangs over us. To justify smoking bans on the basis of harm to others, government authorities had to treat a carefully massaged selection of statistically insignificant findings from ultra-low risk observational epidemiology seriously. Put simply, standards had to be lowered – and they were lowered again when activist-researchers tried to justify smoking bans retrospectively. Once the bar of scientific proof had been dropped for the convenience of single-issue campaigners, it was difficult to raise it up again. Debased epidemiology made it possible to ‘prove’ that anything caused anything. The floodgates were opened for the junk science that is now the bread and butter of the ‘public health’ movement.

Once the ban was in place, anti-smoking campaigners no longer had to pussyfoot around the paternalism that had always been its covert aim. By 2008, they were celebrating the (fake) news that ‘more than 400,000 people quit smoking as a result of the smoking ban’. A few days ago, the Guardian reported a claim by Public Health England that the ban had led to a reduction in smoking and a twenty per cent drop in smoking-related heart disease deaths. In fact, official data show that there was almost no reduction in the smoking rate between 2007 and 2012. Only once vaping became popular did the number of smokers decline.

Whatever scientific fig leaves were used to justify the ban, it is not difficult to discern the true motives of its advocates and supporters. Anti-smoking campaigners wanted it because it made life more difficult for smokers, and a significant number of nonsmokers were happy with it because they did not like the smell of tobacco smoke. You, dear reader, may be in the latter camp. If you’re thinking of writing an angry comment below the line, don’t bother. I’ve heard it all before. I know you think that smoking is a filthy habit. I know you like the fact that your clothes no longer ‘smell like an ashtray’ when you come back from the pub.

All I’m saying is that we didn’t need to make it a criminal offence to smoke in every single publicly accessible building in the country just because some people want to wear the same clothes two days running.

In a liberal society, you can’t go around banning things just because you don’t like them. But if we’re honest with ourselves, that is what we did with smoking ten years ago. It normalised coercive paternalism and validated the tyranny of the majority. This, I would argue, is the smoking ban’s most pernicious legacy.

Last year, David Seedhouse, a professor of ‘values-based practice’ at the University of Worcester, called for a ban on meat in NHS hospitals, saying: ‘Meat eaters who enjoy a relaxing cigarette after dinner are prevented from doing so, apparently in their own and others’ best interests, thanks to a blanket ban on smoking. But how can the NHS sensibly ban cigarettes as a known health hazard while simultaneously promoting meat? To endorse one known danger while completely banning a similar one makes no sense. Either it’s OK to allow free choice or it’s OK to prevent “unhealthy behaviours”, but you can’t have it both ways.’

This is an extreme example, perhaps, but his basic point has been echoed by any number of campaigners for paternalistic prohibitions. The smoking ban unleashed some ugly impulses in the British character which get worse every year. But Professor Seedhouse is right. Either you allow free choice or you don’t. As consumers of alcohol, sugar and e-cigarettes are starting to discover, you really can’t have it both ways.

  • Mikey56

    Heartily Agree. I’m left wing but libertarian. I therefore think that businesses should be coerced by the state, (i.e. bans on advertising and promotion of tobacco) but that individuals should not be.

    The Smoking Ban was a desperately sad day for British Liberty, but in a broader sense it had been coming a long while. CCTV was widely accepted by Brits, and ever increasing the scope of police powers over a scared an uncertain population, while shrinking the space of the individual being free from them has continued apace.

    Just look at the about turn from David Davis on ID Cards. First it will be EU citizens, of course, but as all the who support smoking bans cry “If you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear” we’ll all be carrying little ID Cards in our wallets to be produced on demand by officials. What a sad place to live we are becoming.

    • Callipygian

      Businesses are run by individuals and owned by shareholders, who are also individuals. Your position is incoherent.

  • Vicky Caramel

    A few days before they ended smoking compartments on trains, I was in a carriage talking about it with other commuters. About a third of the people in there were non-smokers, one of whom said, “all the most interesting people are in the smoking compartment, it is the only place on the train you can get a conversation”.

    Frankly I think that the smoking ban was a deliberate attempt to destroy pub culture and introduce a European style cafe culture. It was an attack on men and the working classes — pubs aren’t the same. An important part of our society and culture has been lost.

    • M.Robinson

      Of course it’s much more important to have a conversation than to be able to breathe clean air!
      Most of the smokers I’ve known in my life have been utterly selfish in their habit. They haven’t given a d*mn about anyone else, gleefully lighting up without any consideration for anyone else around.
      My family were once in a restaurant where we had to sit next to a table occupied by a lone smoker whose smoke was drifting over us. I asked him extremely politely if he would please not smoke until we had finished eating. His response was to light yet another fag and deliberately blow as much smoke as he could in our direction. Lovely!
      I appreciate what you say about pubs and so on, but as someone who hates the habit from the depths of my soul, I rejoice that people such as the one I’ve mentioned can no longer make my life, and that of many others, a misery.

      • Dick_Puddlecote

        It’s excellent that the arguments made in the article are irrelevant and that the world revolves around you, government policies should all be decided like this.

        • M.Robinson

          You’re quite right of course. I wonder why nobody has realised this before?

        • worldchanger

          The arguments are not backed by data, anyway. Also correlation is not causation.

      • Klaus K

        Why did you bring your family to a restaurant that allowed smoking?

        • M.Robinson

          This was in the days when smoking was allowed in restaurants. Fortunately such places have been consigned to oblivion.

      • Mc

        Where do you find clean air? Perhaps I should first ask you to define clean air then ask you how you go about getting any. Where can you go with no motor vehicles, no industry, no domestic heating, no dust, no pollen…………

        • Callipygian

          Don’t be ridiculous.

      • Callipygian

        I’ve a foot in both camps, and belong to neither: smoke makes any environment less pleasant to be in (and IS a genuine problem for asthmatics, gourmets, wine-drinkers, and the allergic — I myself am very sensitive to air quality). At the same time, the nagging of the nanny state and its wilful destruction of the people’s freedom is utterly hateful to me.

    • worldchanger

      “Frankly I think that the smoking ban was a deliberate attempt to destroy pub culture”. I find it weird that such a stupid comment can have so many likes. Then again, most people are really fucking stupid. They probably think smoking is good for their health.

      • Mc

        And your next sheet from the playbook is to tell us all about how your granny died horribly as a result of living with a pipe smoker and all your kiddies have asthma because the man who lives four doors away smokes in his garden.

  • Vinny Gracchus

    The smoking ban has contributed to societal division by incubating hate as a tool for the persecution of smokers. It has decimated the pub trade and empowered lifestyle controllers that seek to ban and/or regulate all aspects of life. Health has’t actually improved (since risks from second hand smoke have been exaggerated or fabricated) so relentless propaganda is required to sustain the failed enterprise. About the only ones that actually benefit are a small group of lifestyle control pressure groups that extract funding from the public purse and then use the same funds in violation of the law to lobby for more controls. The smoking ban should be repealed (or at least amended to allow separate smoking rooms).

  • Joe Jackson

    Bravo Snowdon. And I love the way that one anecdote about an inconsiderate smoker, or a badly-ventilated venue, always justifies a law banning people from enjoying a legal habit in every part of every (privately-owned) pub, club, etc in the country (and then in your own car or your own home). Here’s another anecdote: I was recently on the smoking patio of a restaurant/bar in Florida ( a rare treat) when a man sitting with a family about 8 feet away started flapping his napkin and complaining loudly that my smoke was drifting towards him. There was a baby (which no one could see) sleeping on the chair next to him, thus I was the Devil Incarnate. After much more napkin-flapping and complaining, I agreed to go and stand at the other end of the patio to finish my cigarette. He was still complaining and flapping so I politely pointed out that he was in a legal designated smoking area, with ashtrays on every table, when there were plenty of nonsmoking alternatives. To which he shouted ‘It may be legal, but it’s not MORAL!’
    (Incidentally, a baby’s lungs may be smaller than an adult’s, but by the same token, take in much less; a wisp of tobacco smoke in the open air will hurt a baby about as much as an adult, i.e. not at all, and certainly less than diesel exhaust etc. But if you don’t believe me . . . then don’t take the damn baby into a smoking section).

    OK, there are a million worse stories out there than the one above, including physical abuse, but that’s just the latest that’s happened to me personally. No doubt some smokers have been rude – if they’re rude people! – but I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to the astonishingly nasty rudeness which smokers now face every day from self-righteous prigs who’ve been empowered by the ever-growing Nanny State. Smokers have generally complied pretty meekly with every new piece of discrimination. Well, I think we may as well START being rude.

    • Eddie

      Man, you’re still sticking with that position aren’t you? Are you also still insisting that all the research that suggests smoking is bad for you has been fabricated by special interest groups? You’re a silly man, JJ.

  • James Dalton

    Deliberately, as an act of sneering Fabian bullying, Labour decided to punish those of their former voters who were not on board with the new ‘progressive’ worldview. The Fabians projected their intolerance and demonised their own new ‘other’.

    The situation now is as Snowdon describes it. Labour’s undemocratic smoking ban of 2007 has decimated parts of our organic culture via, e.g. pub closures and gentrifications. It imposed a new orthodoxy on society, forming the vanguard for further top-down restrictions on people’s lives.

    The bullying seems to have worked for Labour. The smoking ban has shown them that ‘shaming’ other people’s choices works. That adults will accept being bossed about as if they were back in school.

  • Central power

    At least Farage can not complain that it was the EU who were responsible for the ban.
    Actually Westminster is far ahead of the EU in the “Nanny State” stakes.

    • JonathanBagley

      But not in the area of ecigs. The EU Tobacco Products Directive has banned large tanks, sensible size bottles of liquid and all advertising of ecigs. It’s as if they want us to carry on smoking cigarettes. More business for the Pharmaceutical Industry.

  • RollerBallMurder

    Smoking is antisocial and I’m glad it was banned from pubs and so on, no more coming home reeking of other peoples smoke. Didn’t have such a problem with restaurants that had a clearly separated smoking section.

    • Tony Halford

      So is the smell of perfume and aftershave to some people…and the smell of onions at fairgrounds….and the smell of public toilets….and I don’t much care for the smell of alcohol on everybody’s breath when I visit a pub…..or the waft of Chinese food outside of a restaurant….and for that matter all food smells coming out of all restaurants….and the smell of car exhaust etc, etc. Should we ban all those things too? The logical conclusion to this is that we ban everything because whatever you like to do you can guarantee that someone somewhere will not approve of your doing it.

      • worldchanger

        perfume, aftershave and onions won’t give you cancer, dumbass.

        • Bones

          Statistical risks does not prove causation for smoking, risks for cancer from ‘passive’ smoking cannot be teased out from any other risk: car fumes, cooking………

        • devilskitchen

          That depends on whether you read the Daily Mail or not… 😉

          On a more serious note, as Snowdon points out, all studies (and some were conducted over 30 years or more) found very little evidence that SHS gives you cancer. In fact, mild exposure to cigarette smoke appeared to have a prophylactic effect on children…


      • Callipygian

        Perfume is awful. My m-in-law used to put so much of it in on that I had to run to open the window for fresh air. The whole apartment — though not a small one — stank with it. Her husband was a buffer and probably barely noticed — and he was the only one that could have said anything to her.

  • I have enjoyed going to pubs and restaurants for the last 10 years without smoke, I suspect the majority have, but you make a very strong case
    Should we have a category of pub / restaurant classified as a ‘Smoking Pub’ – so those that wish to categorise themselves should be able to do so accordingly, with appropriate signage to indicate such on the outside?
    I would back such a move and then it would test the demand and the appetite for going back to smoking pubs – I suspect that in certain areas they would be popular but in the main would be in the minority
    Would be a vote winner for a tory party ?
    Doubt if they are smart or radical enough to give it a try?

    • Chris Oakley

      Well said. That is pretty much all anyone ever asked for but the politicians were and are too mean and spiteful to allow such a reasonable thing. Either that or too scared of the medical establishment and authoritarian pressure groups such as CRUK

    • Chris Edwards

      I think a good example here is the rise of the Shisha bars…. Rusholme, Manchester, home of the curry mile… This place needs re-naming, the curry restaurants are few and far between, it would be better called the Shisha mile.

  • JonathanBagley

    All very true, but most of the commenters will only express pleasure that their clothes and hair no longer smell and not debate whether allowing even a few smoking pubs is reasonable.

  • Alaric the Vis

    Smokers have a right to smoke, but not in shared areas where they are imposing their habit on people who don’t want to breathe smoke and stink of someone else’s habit. When smoking inside was legal, smokers were often inconsiderate. It was a lottery going out for a meal before the ban when some selfish smoker would happily sit down next to non-smokers and light up. I really wonder if they knew or cared how unpleasant cigarette smoke is for non-smokers. Many smokers just didn’t seem to understand the problem and, perhaps unintentionally, behaved badly.

    I don’t like banning things but public places are now much more pleasant places and few would turn the clock back. Surely the freedom to smoke ends when it adversely affects someone else who has an equal right to be in that space?

    • Chris Edwards

      Equally, the establishment should have the final say, we are or are not a smoking pub. The landlord decides. We should not be dictated to.

  • donna

    I agree with author. I hate smoking but I have the right not to patronize places where people do but never have. I also allow smoking friends to do so in my home. The only way smoking will decline is when medical costs due to it are refused. There is a bio marker for tobacco linked cancer tumours. Sounds brutal but it will get results.

  • Myothernamesagoodone

    So you’re still demanding the right to pump hundreds of toxic chemicals into enclosed spaces to the risk of all? Do you also think that cars should not be subject to emissions tests and that farmers should be exempt from making provisions to ensure that slurry is not running into rivers? The measure was never principally about reducing smoking but the health and safety of those who did not smoke themselves but were forced to inhale clouds of noxious gases every time they chose to go out for a meal or a drink or simply go to work. Yes, you absolutely have the right to ruin your own health any way you wish. What you never will have is the right to ruin mine.

  • Steve Buckles

    Repeal the smoking ban….If you don’t like smoking, don’t frequent or work at a pub/restaurant or other workplace allowing it. Its that simple. Just like if you don’t like the food or the music’s too loud. At some point we need to be allowed to maneuver and choose for ourselves as adults.