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Health Hell in a handcart

Smoking, stalking and unintended consequences

One of the dangers of knee-jerk legislation is that it sometimes has unintended consequences, so what is generally a good idea can have its downsides. Anti-harassment legislation is a good example of that – as this morning’s Guardian notes, its vagueness means it’s a handy tool for firms to stop people protesting about them – and as Mr Eugenides points out today, it applies to anti-smoking legislation too.

The quick summary: banning smoking in public places is good news for health, but too draconian a ban and it’s possible that you can actually end up doing more harm than good.

Mr E links to a Scotsman story, which mentions research that’s actually been kicking around for a while.

The researchers studied data from the US, where bans have been up and running in California and New York for a number of years. The presence of the nicotine by-product cotinine was recorded to see the effects of such bans.

The results found that bans on buses, in shopping malls and in schools had the desired effect of reducing the levels of tobacco inhaled by non-smokers. But once bans were imposed in recreational places such as pubs, the results shifted markedly.

The researchers said: “We find that bans in recreational public places can perversely increase tobacco exposure of non-smokers by displacing smokers to private places where they contaminate non-smokers.”

Smoking’s less prevalent among well-off people than poorer people, so such displacement is likely to adversely affect poorer kids. As Mr E. says:

Adda and Cornaglia suggest that this may be because the prevalence of smoking is higher in poorer households; as a non-smoker, you are more likely to share your home with a smoker if you are poor. Displacing smoking from the pub to the home will therefore affect the poorest section of society disproportionately hard.

I don’t think this is particularly surprising or controversial, and it’s something that may well disappear in the long term. However, the boss of anti-smoking pressure group ASH Scotland simply discounts it and implies – libellously? – that the researchers are in the pocket of Big Tobacco. Mr E, again:

The study quite clearly supports higher taxes on cigarettes as an effective way to reduce exposure to smoke, and also supports a workplace ban. The authors were sponsored by the ESRC and there is no evidence whatever of any support from the tobacco industry.

…The researchers concluded: “Governments in many countries are under pressure to limit passive smoking. Some pressure groups can be very vocal about these issues and suggest bold and radical reform. Often, their point of view is laudable but too simplistic in the sense that they do not take into account how public policies can generate perverse incentives and effects.”

I don’t have a particular axe to grind here – as I’ve said endlessly, I’m in favour of the ban but appalled by the some of the loons behind it – but I do think it demonstrates the problems of swallowing any pressure group’s agenda wholesale – whether they’re pro or anti-smoking, pro or anti-capitalist, pro-business or pro-environment or anything else. By their very nature, single-issue pressure groups have tunnel vision and a belief in the pure, simple truth – but as Wilde wrote, the truth is rarely pure and never simple.

9 replies on “Smoking, stalking and unintended consequences”

Very interesting. I love smoking, me – but I’m wary of getting involved in debates online, as standing up for smokers’ rights is seen by a lot of people as morally equivalent to arguing the case for, say, child abuse.

We’re continually sold an unproblematised free market ideology, to the extent that an otherwise avaricious public tacitly accept low wages and poor job security in the name of economic ‘realism’ – yet, no one has ever asked why “the market” failed to produce a solution. If the majority of the public wanted non-smoking pubs, why were no canny entrepreneurs opening any?

My personal view is that pub owners should have been given a choice: either ban it completely OR allow smoking, but install air-filtration systems and only employ staff who’re prepared to work in a smoking environment (jobs in smoking pubs would enter the small category of jobs that unemployed people are allowed to turn down without it affecting their benefit).

My local (think “Early Doors”) is struggling as it is – I reckon it’ll close when the ban comes in down here.

If the majority of the public wanted non-smoking pubs, why were no canny entrepreneurs opening any?

There was one – at Queen Street Station – but any time I went past it it was half-empty, possibly because it was full of smug bastards. Heh.

The argument I’ve heard is that non-smokers go to the smoking pubs because we smokers are bad-tempered sods who just ruin the night for everyone if we can’t indulge. There’s probably some truth in that.

My personal view is that pub owners should have been given a choice: either ban it completely OR allow smoking, but install air-filtration systems

Yeah, that was my view too.

It’s been a disaster for the bingo halls, btw.

Don’t think that the Phoenix at Queen St is a good example. Even when it was a lowly Costa coffee it was half empty all the time. similarly with all the various chains it was in between.

The bingo thing’s interesting. Folk are staying at home to smoke, but at least they can afford to. I wonder if there’s some other branch of gambling (Gala online?) seeing a boost. Or, have we just cut a swathe through one of the few vestiges of community still extant? The smoking’s still happening, but the socialising isn’t.

I thought that Wetherspoon’s got it right: genuinely smoke-free no-smoking areas and no smoking at the bar. I found them pleasant places to be. I think a large part of the problem has been that the legislation has been driven by the type of people who stand just inside the no-smoking section, leaning towards the nearest smoker, just for the thrill of wrinkling their noses and saying “Egad, what a foul smell!”

> standing up for smokers’ rights is seen by a lot of people as morally equivalent to arguing the case for, say, child abuse.

I find it’s very easy. I say I’m against the ban, even though I hate cigarette smoke and the ban will make the world a nicer place for me, because it’s the thin end of the wedge. Then pick one or two of the numerous illustrations that our government keep providing to us — forcing chocolate manufacturers to stop making king-size bars, banning two-for-one deals on foods deemed by bureaucrats to contain too much fat, vetting pub menus for salt content as a condition of licensing, forbidding overweight people to adopt orphans. I find that most people immediately start to see my point.

I think a large part of the problem has been that the legislation has been driven by

Oh, absolutely. Zealots, and of course it’s always campaigning on the basis of “well obviously people like us are smart enough to make the right choices, but what about the plebs?” That’s apparent in some of the ASH policy papers on things like lurid photo labelling, where there’s an interesting combination of apparent concern and utter contempt.

Naturally ASH scotland hasn’t stopped with the smoking ban. They now want limits on where you can buy smokes and the times of day you can buy them, because their mission isn’t to protect the innocents, but to protect *everybody* from the evils of smoking. That some people are quite happy to play russian roulette with their immune system just doesn’t compute: it’s simply not accepted as a valid point of view, even if the smoker gets their fix in a way that it can’t affect anybody other than themselves.

I find that most people immediately start to see my point.

There’s a very nasty puritan streak in some people that goes beyond their own health and into *your* health, whether it’s tutting at a pregnant woman having a quick puff or demanding a blanket ban on anything poor people eat.

I meant to post this earlier: you’ve also got to be very suspicious of any figures used to justify moves on health grounds. For example, see if you can spot the difference between these two figures:

31,000
Number of people killed per year by obesity, according to the Health Development Agency and quoted by John Reid in various press releases, October 2003.

1,104
Number of people killed per year by obesity, according to the Department of Health. March 2005.

The bingo thing’s interesting.

They’re not just suffering because of the smoking ban, mind you, although takings do seem to be down very dramatically since it came in. Online’s squeezing them dramatically, and they’re taxed more than other forms of gambling: in addition to gambling taxes, Bingo operators pay VAT. Casinos and bookies are zero rated for VAT, apparently.

No-smoking pubs: The Old Bull & Bush in Hampstead went voluntarily no-smoking a year or two ago, when it went all upmarket (flock wallpaper and sandblasted mirrors) and foodie. Absolutely ruined a very nice old pub. I never go there now. But it seems to do well.

Separation of smoking and no-smoking: The Old White Lion in East Finchley has two wings, one smoking, one not, and the bar in the middle (no smoking at the bar). Absolutely no problem for non-smokers.

Of course come June they’re all going to be forced down one route, and then it’ll be like wot I saw in Glasgow last August: pathetic clumps of tables awkwardly perched on the pavement, for the smokers. Ah well, at least the Spaniard’s Inn has a huge outdoor area, so summer will still be nice…

Tables and awnings for smokers are the exception, believe me – especially in Glasgow where the council stymied most applications for external areas. I know I’ve said it before, but the best example of non-smoking pubs I’ve seen to date was in Galway, where the non-smoking pub I was in had the inspired idea of simply taking the roof off one room and sticking heaters, horse brasses and bar stools in the resulting open air room. Brilliant.

One of the things that’s become obvious over here, incidentally, is that pubs’ initial enthusiasm for being nice to smokers wanes quickly. Pubs that do have awnings to stop smokers getting soaked don’t bother to put them out when it rains, and the ones with external heaters don’t switch ’em on when it’s bloody freezing.

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