The campaign against smoking has transformed from a benevolent struggle to improve public health to a frontal assault on consumer freedom, says Guillaume Périgois.

Europe is famed for its tolerant and laid-back approach to life. We pride ourselves on our sense of nuance and our willingness to compromise. So, it is alarming to witness the growing power of anti-tobacco campaigners and their relentless drive to ‘denormalise’ smokers – as they put it. In particular, efforts to prevent people from smoking in public – and now increasingly in private – are worrying. It started with cafés and has now extended to public buildings, parks, beaches and the car. The cry is now going up to ban smokers from lighting up even in their own homes. You wonder where this will end – policemen knocking on our doors to check we’re not smoking or drinking in front of children?

Like many forms of prohibition, smoking bans have less-than-hoped-for benefits and many unwelcome side effects. This does not put off the campaigners, of course. Failure just leads them to demand more and faster change. The ban on smoking in bars has been a disaster. In the UK about a fifth of pubs have closed since the ban as smokers have retreated from the public sphere to the relative sanctuary of their own living rooms. This is not just a misfortune for the thousands of publicans and bar staff who used to be employed serving their customers. Pubs and bars act as social hubs for communities, bringing people together, strengthening social ties, reducing loneliness and encouraging responsible drinking. Pub closures have disproportionately affected low income, urban communities most disadvantaged by the breakdown of social cohesion. Meanwhile, there is no evidence to suggest that smoking rates have come down because of the ban. Numbers of smokers were in gentle decline before the ban and the rate remains unchanged after it. People are slowly turning away from smoking without the need to bully them to do so. It’s true that a minority dislike the smoke and aroma of tobacco in public places and would prefer the minority who smoke to pursue their habit privately. But a civilised society is all about finding compromises so that different minorities with different tastes and habits can live peacefully together without forcing their neighbours to conform to some imposed ideal.

A sensible compromise on smoking in bars and cafes is perfectly possible. The law should allow smoking in some bars or some areas of bars so that people are free to choose the ambience that suits them best. Options should include separate, properly ventilated smoking rooms, as it is the case in many EU countries. Regulations on outdoor smoking shelters should also be relaxed so that people can smoke outside in a warm and comfortable environment all year round. Because freedom of choice is a central tenet of European society, governments in Europe should review their smoking ban laws to accommodate smokers without inconveniencing those who don’t want to be exposed to tobacco smoke.

Some European governments are currently considering following these principles by overturning outright bans on smoking in bars and restaurants. We should welcome this as a moderate and tolerant measure that upholds the hard-won and very European concept of live-and-let-live. But of course, the tobacco-control brigade is mobilising to thwart the relaxation of the bans, shrieking about of a ‘public health disaster’, organising a petition of objectors and lobbying hard, not just in the concerned countries but also in Brussels. Its main argument is that governments have a duty to protect the health of bar workers by banning smoking in bars.

The evidence on the health impact of working in a bar that allows smoking is shaky at best. But either way, nobody is forced to work in bars, just as nobody is forced to visit them as a customer. Banning smoking in bars because it might harm bar workers is a bit like banning drinking in bars because it might encourage bar workers to drink. You could make a public health argument along these lines to ban virtually every human activity under the sun. It sometimes seems as if anti-smoking campaigns have more to do with confected moral outrage than with public health. The same people who wish to ban smoking also try to ban e-cigarettes, despite the obvious health benefits of switching to smokeless tobacco. They dress up their arguments with specious claims about ‘gateway’ activities when actually they just dislike smokers and the idea that ordinary human beings sometimes like to indulge in the naughtier pleasures of life.

These campaigns betray a nastiness and intolerance that has no place in modern Europe. We owe it to our sense of decency and liberality to stand up against these lobbyists and in favour of those of us who fancy a smoke with their coffee or their beer.

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