Close but no cigar

It seems that Mel Smith has backed down from his threat to violate the smoking ban whilst playing Churchill on stage at the Edinburgh Festival, and after comments from council’s Chief Enforcement Officer (a job title for a self important jobsworth if ever there was one) threating to revoke the venue’s licence and never licence it again, I can hardly blame him.

This is actually a story about which I, surprisingly, have mixed feelings. On the one hand it does seem silly not to be able to portray Churchill with a cigar and the attitude of the council is infuriatingly condescending. But on the other hand, if you’re going to have a ban on smoking in the workplace, and have it enforced by petty minded fools, then this is exactly the sort of rubbish you have to expect. A theatre is obviously a ‘workplace’ after all. No, the thing that really annoys me is the spurious logic that is bandied about as to what the ban is actually for, in contrast to what it seems it will really lead to.

Think about it, this isn’t meant to be an outright ban on smoking, or even a ban on smoking in public. No, it is a ban only on ‘smoking in the workplace’, designed to protect non-smokers from the alleged dangers of passive smoking while at work. After all who could really take issue with that? People have to work, why should they have to work in an environment full of cigarette smoke? It probably sounds perfectly reasonable to the sort of person that sees nothing wrong with banning things in general.

Except that’s not what it’s about at all. It can’t be, as the vast majority of workplaces in England already do not allow smoking and haven’t done for years, without the need for a government diktat. How many offices do you know of where people are allowed to smoke? How many shops? Factories? I can’t recall a single one, and given that it is in these environments that the majority of people in this country work, there doesn’t seem to be much need for a ban ‘to protect workers’.

The majority of ‘workplaces’ where smoking is currently permitted are places that are only incidentally workplaces. They are primarily public meeting places, in which people also work. They are restaurants, bars, clubs and pubs. These are the real targets of the smoking ban, they have to be, as without them the ban is utterly pointless. “So what?” you may say, “Shouldn’t people that work in these places be protect also?”. No, I would argue that they shouldn’t.

In contrast to ‘normal’ workplaces the vast majority of restaurants, bars, clubs and pubs do allow smoking, and in my experience those that don’t are usually much quieter than those that do. People expect that smoking will be permitted, in at least a section of the premises, the freedom to choose to have a cigarette after a meal or with a drink is part of the service that is being paid for. Therefore, people that go to work there do so knowing the sort of environment in which they will be working. To argue that a barman shouldn’t have to expect be exposed to a smokey atmosphere is akin to arguing that a fireman shouldn’t have to expect to be exposed to fire – it is a nonsense. If a smokey atmosphere bothers you so much, don’t become a barman. It really should be that simple.

The real aim of this ban is simply to further demonise smokers, it is nothing more than a crude attempt to force them to give up that which some find distasteful, or be ostracised from society. Looked at from this perspective, where the wording of this ban eventually leads us becomes clear. Where precisely isn’t a ‘workplace’? Plenty of people work in the street, so logically at some point smoking in any public place will be banned. If I employ a cleaner or a nanny, my home becomes their workplace, so I can’t smoke there either. I already can’t smoke in my car, as that seems to leave me open to a charge of Driving Without Due Care & Attention. A ban on smoking in the ‘workplace’ does effectively allow smoking to banned everywhere.

In which case, Mel Smith not being able to smoke when playing Churchill seems a slightly insignificant side effect.


One Response to “Close but no cigar”  

  1. 1 Barry Price

    Here in Thailand, smoking is censored on television (a pixellated blur effect is applied – seriously!), banned on public transport and in stations, and banned in many private businesses, ie. shops, fast-food restaurants, offices, etc.

    Smoking outside, in the home and in a car is still perfectly acceptable, and is very much allowed in every pub or bar I have visited. The only restaurants in which I’ve not seen an ashtray have been McDonalds and Burger King.

    So I guess we’re at about the stage where the UK was 5-10 years ago – some of the posher Western restaurants do have no-smoking sections, but the Thai places won’t be following their lead anytime soon.

    Smoking is a hugely judgemental subject here – the health warnings on the (70p) cigarette packets are photographic rather than textual, and the habit itself is generally frowned upon in this country so hugely obssesed with class. A Thai seen smoking is assumed to either be of low-class, or of such high-class that s/he simply doesn’t care what the observer thinks. Hi-So indeed.

    Back to Mel, I’m glad he didn’t get the theatre into trouble, there is precious enough original culture/entertainment remaining in the world as it is. But something, somewhere seems to have gone terribly, terribly wrong.

    Perhaps a conscientious fire-fighter could do us all a favour and refuse to enter a flaming factory as there is “smoke in the workplace”…

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