Author: Joe Jackson
Article Published: 2009/10/30

There has been a fair amount of talk lately about ‘amending’ the UK smoking ban, possibly by allowing separate smoking rooms. This might be better than a total ban, but I still believe it’s a mistake for smokers to actually volunteer for segregation. Here’s why:

(1) By campaigning for segregation, we are surrendering to what antismokers call ‘denormalisation’: the idea that smoking cannot, anywhere, ever, be tolerated by nonsmokers, and that there is no place for smokers in ‘normal’ society.

(2) By campaigning for segregation, we are implicitly endorsing the myth that ‘secondhand smoke’ kills innocent bystanders. Those of us who have done our homework know that this is a fraud. Unless we say so – over and over again – then we really don’t have a leg to stand on.

(3) By campaigning only for exemptions or amendments to smoking bans, we are implicitly accepting that authorities are entitled to overrule property rights by enacting them in the first place.

(4) We are also turning our backs on, for instance, publicans whose premises are not big enough to have separate rooms.

(5) Campaigning for separate rooms is a tactical mistake, since it is so close to the ‘Anti’ position that it leaves no room for compromise.

(6) By volunteering to be confined to separate rooms, we are implicitly accepting another antismoking myth: that modern ventilation systems – which are deemed good enough for infectious disease wards and laboratories working with toxic chemicals – are not ‘good enough’ to make the air in a pub perfectly comfortable for everyone.

(7) Separate rooms don’t always work so well in practice. It’s naïve to think, even if we win this concession, that it won’t come with a lot of onerous conditions attached. In various countries, these have included: room must be completely sealed; room must have prohibitively expensive air-cleaning system; room cannot be the main room of an establishment, and must be smaller, or not above a specified size; staff cannot work in or even enter room; access to toilets must not be through smoking room; and so on. Such conditions can have two unfortunate effects. One is that the sheer hassle of creating a smoking room is too much for many publicans. The other is that smoking rooms are so artificial, sterile, cut-off and unwelcoming, that no one wants to use them. Either way, antismokers can then claim that no one really wants smoking rooms - not even smokers.

(8) Campaigning for segregation is illogical, inconsistent, and cowardly, and I don’t believe, as some people seem to, that it is ‘realistic’ or makes us look good. We are currently an unfairly stigmatised minority. Our arguments should therefore be clear, principled, logical, persistent, and dignified. All these things may not end smoking bans tomorrow, but they must, over time, command respect. Bending over backwards, on the other hand, to compromise with our enemies, agreeing with most of their propaganda, and begging them to just give us a break, can only invite contempt.

For all these reasons, I’m convinced that a campaign limited to asking for separate rooms is doomed to failure. There is no reason why antismoking authorities – some of the most arrogant people on the planet - should ‘give us a break’ just because we’ve asked nicely. Even if such a campaign succeeds, we will still be second-class citizens, shunted out of sight into prison-like back rooms, having gained nothing except the ‘privilege’ of a roof over our heads when it rains. It’s just not good enough.

If we believe that authorities have no right to ban the use of a legal product by adults on private property, and that their reasons for doing so are spiteful and dishonest, then this is what we should be saying. And if this is what we’re saying, then we should be campaigning to scrap bans altogether and to restore freedom of choice and tolerance. If nothing else, this leaves room for some sort of compromise. And if we are to actually campaign for a compromise, the Spanish Solution is a much better one: only establishments over 100 sq. m. are obliged to have separate rooms, while smaller places can set their own policies, with no strings attached.

In the meantime we should continue to pressure the hospitality industry into supporting us by boycotting places where we can’t smoke, party at home, and set our sights a bit higher.

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