Select Committee on Health Written Evidence

Memorandum by Professor Roger Scruton (SP 57)

  Here are some thoughts on the issue of smoking in public places that you might wish to put before your committee.

  1.  There are two kinds of "public place"—those that we are free to avoid, and those that surround us whether we like it or not. Places where people have to go, in pursuit of their daily business, ought to be smoke free, since most people don't want to breathe second-hand smoke, and second-hand smoke in any case poses a risk to health. Places where people go partly in order to smoke in company—like the local pub—but which others are free to avoid, raise quite different questions, and it is bound to be controversial for the law to forbid what normally goes on there.

  2.  There are two general reasons for caution in legislating on matters like this one. First, the scientific base is always shifting, and what is declared to be a major health hazard one week might the next be discovered to be no such thing—having been meanwhile forbidden. There is a school of thought associated with something called the Precautionary Principle which says that, in the absence of conclusive evidence we should nevertheless forbid that which might pose a serious risk—in other words, take no risk. But taking no risks is itself a risky policy. And the arguments for forbidding tobacco smoke in public places weigh yet more strongly in favour of forbidding car exhaust fumes—something that would have dire effects on the economy, and which no politician contemplates as yet.

  3.  We need to consider two questions in addition to that of health: the rights of the various parties involved, and the consequences, social and economic, of the legislation. I have no doubt in my mind that people who don't smoke have the right to be free of smoke exhaled by others. I also have no doubt that smokers have the right to gather together in places where others go, provided the others are free to avoid those places. This is the normal rule in the village pub, which usually has a bar where you can smoke and another where you cannot. The only doubts concern the barman, who is obliged to breathe second-hand smoke if he is to keep his job. On the other hand, a car mechanic is obliged to encounter all the toxic products of his trade, including large doses of carbon monoxide. The assumption is that, if he chooses this trade, he also chooses the risks associated with it. Common sense suggests that the same applies to barmen.

  4.  All the above considerations are familiar and have been regularly discussed in the media. What seems to be less frequently discussed, however, is the social consequences of a ban on smoking in public places, where public places includes pubs and bars. As someone who lives in the country, where the pub is a mainstay of community life, I have to say that I regard with considerable apprehension any legislation that either increases the likelihood of excessive drinking or—worse still—leads to people staying at home and doing their drinking there. It seems to me that we need proper statistical research on the extent to which smoking in the pub reduces drinking. I feel sure that it does, since part of the point of both activities, when carried on in company, is to find some other use for the mouth than talking, in order to overcome inhibitions and to slow down the pace of conversation. For many people (especially those brought up after the war) 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, who would no longer have a place to which they can go and share in an ambience where the older generation dominate. Indeed, the pub, as traditionally conceived, helped to keep binge drinking under control. The binge now usually starts in the off-licence, and proceeds from there to the bus shelter, the park bench or the football stadium. The pub was a place to relax with your neighbours, and since relaxation involved doing things that you were not allowed to do at home but which helped you to be at ease with others, smoking had—and it seems to me (as a non-smoking observer) still has—an important place in the social ambience of the pub. Personally, therefore, I would prefer to see suitable health warnings above the bar, together with the mandatory provision of a non-smoking bar, rather than a legal prohibition of smoking in the pub.

  The economic consequences of a ban would also be serious, since it would certainly lead to the closure of many pubs and bars in marginal places—precisely those places where the social function of the pub is most important. This would have a knock-on effect on local economies of a kind that may be serious in rural areas. I assume that you are taking evidence from the Association of Licensed Retailers on this kind of issue.

  5.  Obviously there are political factors to take into consideration: the present Government is acquiring a negative image on account of its propensity to ban whatever the activists dislike. "When in doubt, ban it" is not a healthy political slogan. It might be thought wise to back off in the present instance, where the ordinary pleasures of ordinary people are at stake. But that is of course a different kind of argument, which may or may not appeal to the committee.

  6.  As I indicated, my wife and I have a small media consultancy which has a tobacco firm as a client, so that the above may all be discounted as self-serving propaganda. However, the firm in question (JTI) seeks our help in promoting serious debate about the wider issues of marketing and risk. They hope to secure an intellectual climate which recognises their trade as a legitimate and legal part of things. So far as I know they don't have a line on whether smoking in public places should be banned, and the arguments that I have given above are in any case irrelevant to their interests since they have no business in Britain. If you want to see the kind of work that we do for this firm you should consult, which is the briefing that we produce summarising arguments and promoting discussion about the interconnection of risk, freedom and regulation in a modern economy.

  7.  That said, it should be mentioned that the demonisation of the tobacco industry is one of the factors behind the current legislative proposals. Promoting public health is one thing; punishing an industry (whether or not justly) another. It is very important for legislators to be absolutely clear which of those objectives is guiding them—and this applies to the drinks and fast food industries also, where the health factors are at least as serious as in the case of tobacco, and where some kind of legislation will soon be needed to protect the long term interests of society. Any legislation about smoking in public places is going to create a precedent for legislation governing fast food, alcohol, and the diet of children, and must therefore be founded on clear principles. In general I would say that health is an important consideration but seldom the only one. It is also right and proper to consider people's desires, their social needs, and the long-term interests of public order and community sentiment.

September 2005

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