Select Committee on Health First Report

4  Justification for a ban

41. In this chapter we consider, in principle, the arguments for and against a ban on smoking in enclosed public places and workplaces; in later chapters we will look at the arguments for and against the Government's proposed exemptions for institutions where people live, and for clubs and some pubs. The justification for the principle of a ban is straightforward: workers have a right to be protected from SHS. The argument depends on two assumptions: that SHS is a significant danger to health and that other ways of mitigating this danger such as ventilation are impracticable and ineffective. Given the validity of these two assumptions, and the vast majority of expert opinion accepts them, a ban is justified. The situation is the same as it would be for any other health hazard. Workers should no more be exposed to SHS than to asbestos.

42. As well as workers, there are other vulnerable groups which particularly require protection from harm, including people with asthma, children and unborn babies.[40] It is also argued that people who have given up smoking should be protected from having to spend time with smokers, since smoking is a powerful addiction and ex-smokers are more likely to relapse if they have to mix with smokers.

43. There are indirect health benefits of a ban. First, it is expected that the amount smokers smoke will decrease and that some smokers will give up altogether. The Northern Ireland Minister of Health, Shaun Woodward MP, told us about his experiences when he was in New York, where there was a ban: because it was too much trouble to go outside for a cigarette, he gave up.[41] The Government's partial Regulatory Impact Assessment estimates that "the total benefit, in reduced smoking, of moving from the current situation to completely smokefree indoor public places (including workplaces) is […] a fall of around 1.7 percentage points in smoking prevalence in England".[42] Secondly, a ban sends a powerful message that smoking and secondhand smoke is unhealthy; smokers will be reluctant to light up in front of their children, and the evidence demonstrates that as a result, more homes become smoke-free. These expected changes provide secondary arguments for a ban but do not in themselves justify a ban, as witnesses recognised.

44. There are several arguments against a ban. They include:

  • The economic consequences for pubs and other hospitality industry businesses would be excessive;
  • We want to live in a tolerant society which does not limit liberty or freedom of choice;
  • The rights of smokers outweigh the risks to workers who are free to choose whether to do a dangerous job.

45. There are concerns that not only could the economic consequences of a ban be disastrous for the hospitality industry, but they could also have serious social consequences, leading many village pubs, which are vital institutions, to close. It is claimed that in some villages the loss of the pub would mean the loss of the heart of the village. Professor Roger Scruton, a philosopher and writer, informed us:

    For many people […] the cigarette and the pint are bound by an indissoluble marriage, and a ban on smoking will therefore drive them from the pub. I believe that the pub, properly managed, frequented by respectable people of the neighbourhood and conducted under a regime of controlled social drinking is a huge social asset, and that to destroy it would have serious consequences, especially on the socialisation of the young.[43]

46. There is also a strong feeling that we do not want to live in a society which readily bans activities; we may disapprove of other people's actions but we should be reluctant to ban them. This is a feeling shared by many people, but it is not an argument for never imposing a ban on an activity. Each issue has to be judged on its merits. If there is evidence that a substance is dangerous, people should be protected from it. Dr Richard Ashcroft, a medical ethicist from Imperial College, told us "The main way in which you can justify restricting someone's liberty is where they are causing harm to others".[44]

47. Related to our desire to live in a tolerant society is the strongly held belief that smokers have a right to pursue a legal activity, especially in places like pubs where smoking is common and where, importantly, no one is forced to go. Judging by the opinion polls this argument is relatively popular, if decreasingly so. Some of the proponents of this view tend to ignore the rights of workers: when asked whether smokers should be allowed to smoke in pubs, people tend to agree and are more likely to oppose a ban on smoking; however, if asked about the need to protect bar staff many more will support a ban. As we have seen, according to Choosing Health, the public simultaneously believe that people should be protected from doing things which put the health of others at risk and that there should not be a complete ban in all licensed premises, an apparently contradictory position.[45]

48. Other proponents of the view accept that there is a risk to workers but argue that other jobs are more dangerous and people choose where to work: if they are concerned about the risk to their health from a smoky environment, they can always find a less dangerous job. The Minister for Public Health, Caroline Flint MP, came close to this view, stating "I think we had to look at a way forward which […] would give more choice for people to work […] in smoke-free environment […] and there will be more choice for every workers covered by our proposals".[46] In contrast, other witnesses argued that in practice many workers had little choice. There is little alternative to bar work for some people, such as students and single parents, who need the flexible arrangements and local availability the job offers.[47] We took evidence from a bar worker from Newcastle who pointed out that many young people are unaware of the risks they are running if they get a job in a smoky bar. Ms Pauline Robson told us:

    I have worked in a pub for 35 years and 35 years ago smoking was not an issue. I did not even think about it when I was younger. It is only as you become more educated and when you see the advertisements that are coming on the television now—there is that new one where you see the clot going up the vein, it really freaks you out—that you are encouraged not to smoke. I work in a pub, we take about £40,000 per week, it is a busy pub and we have about 46 staff […] I think a total ban would be the best thing. Everybody would know where they stood and there would not be some playing off against others. We owe the next generation good healthy living and we should show them an example.[48]

49. Moreover, the argument that workers can choose where to work and therefore can decide whether to take on health risks goes against the grain of most legislation to protect workers.[49] The same point could have been made about child chimney sweeps.

50. Other jobs are by their nature more dangerous than working in a smoky bar, such as coal mining, or deep sea diving. However, in these jobs every effort is made to reduce the risks and eliminate unnecessary hazards. Moreover, the danger to coal miners, deep sea divers or trawler men is intrinsic to the task; the situation in bars is not the same. It is not essential that bar workers suffer exposure to carcinogens in secondhand smoke.

51. In balancing the economic effects on businesses and smokers' rights against workers' rights, we have to weigh up the likely effect on each group. The experience in Ireland suggests that the economic consequences of the ban on the hospitality industry have been slight and that smokers' suffering has been relatively trivial: if smokers want to smoke they go outside and do not seem to mind too much. In contrast, there is strong evidence that smoking in the workplace has significant effects. As we have seen, it is estimated that about 500 non-smokers each year die prematurely from inhaling secondhand smoke in the workplace; this is surely too high a price to pay for the right to smoke. We cannot accept that the right to smoke can justify these deaths. Workers have a right to be protected from harmful substances unless there is an overwhelming reason for undertaking the risk.

40   There are 5.1 m people in the UK with asthma, and cigarette smoke is the second most common asthma trigger in the workplace. 20% of people with asthma feel excluded from parts of their workplace because other people smoke there. Department of Health, Consultation on the Smoke-free Elements of the Health Improvement and Protection Bill, p 22, Ref: 269278 1p 1k Jun 05 (CWP). Back

41   Q 529 Back

42   ibid, p 20. Back

43   Ev 117, Volume III Back

44   Q 88 Back

45   Department of Health, Choosing Health: Making healthy choices easier, Cm 6374, November 2004, p 97, suggests that these views were based on an Opinion Leader Research survey, but no question on this issue is included in the survey. Back

46   Q 545 Back

47   Q 383 Back

48   Q 379 Back

49   Q 383 Back

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Prepared 19 December 2005