For much of my life I have had frequent cause to feel proud to be part of a nation with a liberal tradition, famed for its ability to compromise and with a long history of standing against tyranny and oppression. The 2006 Health Act has helped to shatter my illusions. Not because I feel that it is wrong to protect people from breathing unwanted smoke but because the legislation goes far beyond what might reasonably be considered necessary and in effect turns millions of people into second class citizens.
If we temporarily ignore the debate over the health impact of passive smoking and accept that even if that case is not proven it is still reasonable in a civilised society for the majority who don’t smoke not to be subjected to detrimental effect from the minority who do, then it is possible to justify legislation and perhaps, by using the broadest definition of “harm”, to claim that such legislation is consistent with liberal values.
However, in a civilised society that claims to value liberty and democracy, legislation to protect the majority might also be reasonably expected to do so without unnecessary detrimental impact on the minority, especially when the minority is otherwise behaving within the law.
Travelling around Europe, I have noticed the ingenious solutions that many countries have adopted in order to provide smoke free environments for the majority whilst accommodating the sizeable minority who choose to smoke. This is especially noticeable in public spaces such as airports where technology has provided one answer. Indoor smoking facilities are provided at many European airports and as a non-smoker I can attest to their effectiveness. Only those who preach the anti-science doctrine of “no safe minimum exposure” could possibly argue against this approach on health grounds.
The contrast with the UK is striking. Most airports do not offer any smoking facilities airside and when facilities do exist, they take the form of a draughty open air cage.
I believe that the solutions arrived at by our more enlightened and more liberal neighbours are aligned with the majority viewpoint and are compatible with the British traditions of tolerance and fairness. They are not possible in the UK however because the 2006 Health Act intentionally goes beyond what is reasonably necessary to protect non-smokers. Apologists for this illiberal piece of legislation effectively penned by pressure groups and enacted at the expense of a broken manifesto pledge, refuse to consider provision for those who smoke even when this can evidently be achieved without significant impact on those who prefer not to be exposed to second hand smoke. This is hardly surprising as they also appear to advocate state bullying, intimidation and coercion on the basis that, in the case of public health statistics, “the end justifies the means”.
We might expect the social engineers of the far left or right to make that argument, but parliamentarians who support this legislation in its current form while claiming to espouse liberal values should hang their heads in shame. I just feel shame for my country.
Written by Chris Oakely. All photographs are the authors own.