IT’S 10 years since smoking was banned in public places in England. Can you remember the furore at the time? Do you recall the dire warnings that restaurants, cafes and public houses would close their doors for good, and national life would never recover?
I remember railing against it myself, calling the legislation an affront to civil liberties. I suspect I may have been in the throes of one of my lapses, sneaking a cheeky cig and citing the pressure of work as a justification.
I don’t do that any longer. I revel in the fact that I have clean hair, that my house smells of nothing less wholesome than the dog, and that I can look my two children in the eye and say “I. Do. Not. Smoke.”
For the record, with two parents who have smoked, and a stepfather who has given up the habit recently, my offspring are vehemently anti-cigarettes. I can’t see either of them ever starting. For that, I am eternally grateful. I want them to live a long time and to save their money.
It was the sheer cost of a packet which tipped their step-father over the edge. When the cashier at the garage mentioned a figure not un-adjacent to £10 for 20, he spluttered that enough was enough. He hasn’t touched a cigarette since that fateful Sunday morning. Our household finances have certainly benefited.
However, out of everyone affected by the ban, it is probably true to say that publicans have suffered most. FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco), a pressure group dedicated to promoting the rights of smokers to indulge their habit where-ever they like, claims that the pub trade has been decimated by the ban. It says that there are now 11,383 fewer pubs in England than in 2006, a drop of more than 20 per cent.
I don’t wish to get into an argument with FOREST, but I would point out that there are other factors at work here too. As a nation, our socialising habits are undergoing a seismic change.
We’re more likely to stay in and watch TV or stream music and movies direct to our tablets and laptops. If we’re feeling sociable, it’s probably a barbecue in the summer months and a meal out with friends when the evenings draw in.
And as for those cafes and restaurants, they don’t seem to have suffered from the smoking ban at all – apart from the fact that most of us have less disposable income to spend than we had a decade ago.
And the nation’s health? Well, according to Public Health England, deaths from heart disease have dropped by 20 per cent since the ban was brought in. If this is not proof that not smoking is a good idea, I don’t know what is. You don’t need me to remind you that smoking is also a contributory factor in many cancers. And it has a detrimental effect on so many aspects of well-being – from being able to run up the stairs without huffing and puffing to the state of our teeth.
I say all this as a former smoker. I took up the habit when I left home at 18 and didn’t stop until my early 30s. I can remember when it was acceptable to smoke not only on a bus and train, but on an aeroplane. Imagine being able to do that now, when it’s technically against the law to smoke in a vehicle if there is a child present.
I only gave up because a kindly obstetrician told me that my chances of conceiving a child were pretty much negligible if I didn’t. I had literally, poisoned myself. If that’s not a good reason to take yourself in hand, I don’t know what is.
There have been blips since then, as I said. And I still rely on a nicotine substitute lozenge – widely available from supermarkets and chemists, may I say – in times of stress. I am in absolutely no position to preach. I know how hard it is to resist.
I also understand that there is no pressure like social pressure. When I first took the decision to tackle my habit, I actually refused to socialise for two weeks until the worst of the cravings subsided. I was surrounded by friends who smoked, in an environment in which it was always acceptable to do so.
That’s why when people ask why we have to have legislation, and why that legislation has to be pretty draconian, I’d always say it is to protect us all. And that means protecting smokers from themselves. If it’s acceptable to smoke, we will. Now it’s not, fewer and fewer of us do so every day.
A decade ago, I thought that the Government was stealing our liberty. How wrong I was. What it actually did was to give us all the freedom from cigarettes that we secretly craved.