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Artillery Row

The sad side of “smokefree”

Let’s not pretend that there are no benefits to smoking

Nostalgia is an indulgence best consumed in moderation, but it can be pleasurable. A lot of my happier memories are perceptible through a haze of smoke.

I’m one of few people who has actively enjoyed the smoking ban in bars and restaurants. Popping outside for a cigarette makes a change. It’s an opportunity to mingle with strangers. You can tell the jokes and stories you couldn’t tell inside. People it puts off smoking didn’t enjoy it enough to be doing it in the first place.

My best friend and I began to speak while smoking cigarettes outside a shisha bar. I got talking to my last two girlfriends while smoking outside pubs. Say what you like about the habit — and there is a lot to say — but it brings people together.

Now they want to ban this merry little luxury

Now they want to ban this merry little luxury. Councillors at more than a dozen authorities have demanded the clampdown in a bid to help people quit smoking,” reports The Mirror, after a “Government-commissioned review last year recommended a ban on smoking outside any premises that sell food and drink”. This is all part of an attempt for England to “reach its target of being smokefree by 2030”. 

Is that your target? I’m afraid it is now. People online have been debating whether the smell and “second-hand smoke” produced by people lighting up outside Britain’s bars and restaurants mean that it is not a matter of individual choice — but the goal is to prohibit individual choice. In that “Government-commissioned review”, Dr Javed Khan declares that “to truly achieve a smokefree society in this great country of ours, smoking should be obsolete”. Of course smoking would be obsolete in a smokefree society — but he means that this must be made the case.

Look — there’s no point shimmying around the blunt facts. Smoking is a very addictive and physically destructive habit. It’s killed millions of people years before they would have otherwise expired. I’m a fortunate man to have remained a social smoker and not felt compelled to let cigarettes seep throughout my life.

It’s no bad thing if smoking becomes rarer in society as people choose to step away from its consequences. The top-down drive for its eradication is not just obnoxious in the abstract terms of liberalism, though, but in its disruptive impact on people’s social existence. They are not transitioning into a different set of habits but just having habits swiped from them. Many young people have decided to smoke vapes instead, but it looks like these are going to end up being banned as well.

There’s an old phrase about babies and bathwater. Britain has embarked upon a decades-long campaign to make pubs more expensive and sanitised. Now, they are closing in their hundreds. That might not be bad news for livers and lungs, but how many friendships aren’t coming to be? How many relationships aren’t being inspired? In an ideal world, the sort of enthusiasm and intimacy that unites people would be created by healthier means. Is that our world (yet at least)? We can’t assume that when a social ritual is eliminated another will seamlessly emerge to replace it. 

Where is the review into the effects of making hospitality “smokefree” on hospitality? Where is the review into the effects of the decline of British pubs, restaurants and cafes on people’s social lives and mental health? The irony is that some politicians who freeze people out of public spaces will then lament the fact that they are hooked on screens.

Again, I’m not trying to engage in the Hitchensian idealisation of smoking. (It probably killed Hitchens and Martin Amis after all.) But as the means of interaction and intimacy it counts for something. Health is wealth, for sure, but while I’m having fun with cliches I will add that money can’t buy you happiness. The romance of social life is being gradually drained from Britain, and it’s no good being fitter but bored and alone.

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