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Devil’s Advocate: Should Smoking Be Banned?

YES (38%) — Alexander Sparkes

Picture Priti Patel’s face. A new drug is taking the nation by storm. The Essex Escobars of the “county lines” gangs have put all three of their brain cells together, and come up with the most potent, addictive set of “magic beans'' ever known to man. Users are ubiquitous: hunched over on park benches, falling out of the backs of pubs, even scurrying through school gates. The moral panic is palpable: hospitals are clogged, deaths hit 300 a day, and many go broke to support the habit. The WHO releases a report suggesting a 50% fatality rate for long term users.

Naturally, the redoubtable Home Secretary puts on her scariest possible face, goes onto television, and launches a Crusade, suit of armour and all. That night, the police strap themselves into their Vauxhalls, notepads at the ready, and proceed to round up every last user, supplier and mule that they can find. The population of Liverpool is halved overnight.

The key point from this little daydream, is that no government would ever tolerate such a degree of damage caused by an illegal drug; with the hot flames of public opinion toasting their backsides, they would swoop in to intervene. So why, therefore, do they tolerate the continued existence of smoking? Simply put, if you change the legality of the scenario, you have an exact replication of the situation in Britain today. The statistics hold true, as does the pain caused to those affected. Smoking ruins lives, wastes money, and enriches men of questionable morals. Yet, there is no real clamor to ban cigarettes.

The main reason for this is clear: normalisation. From Walter Raleigh’s first tentative puffs, to Noel Gallagher’s “nicotine nineties,” smoking has been deeply ingrained into British culture. People simply accept it as a fact of life, in a way that they wouldn’t if smoking were a more recent innovation. Even 20 years ago the “argument of inertia,” may still have seemed plausible; British society, it could be argued, rarely accepts changes enforced from outside. But these are different times that we live in, the desire on the part of many (particularly the young), to rip up some of the past’s more “problematic” legacies, is palpable. Why then do we tear down coal power stations in the name of the environment, artwork in the name of social justice, but not cigarettes in the name of public health? After all, smoking kills far more people in the here and now: let’s get our priorities in order!

Among the most compelling arguments in favour of a full smoking ban is the dreaded rise of the vape. True to form, the pin-striped charlatans of the tobacco industry have lined up their exit plan in advance: rather than choking us with cigarettes, they instead intend to blight us with vapes. Philip Morris International (PMI), the owner of brands including Malboro & Chesterfield, has somewhat confusingly begun to campaign for a “smoke-free world”: something of a U-turn for a company with a 250 year history of turning lungs black. This is no trite platitude: if PMI’s press releases are to be trusted (a phrase which contains not an ounce of implication), sales of cigarettes are to be halted in Britain by 2030, a move which would see a perennial teenage favourite (Marlboro Golds) forever banished from Tesco’s shelves.

Of course, the logic behind the rhetoric becomes all too clear when you look at the small print: vapes and all other “heated tobacco products” are not considered to be smoking, and would consequently be rolled out to fill in the cigarette-shaped hole in the market. There are two key issues with this move. The first is that the substitution of vapes for cigarettes is fundamentally disingenuous: both pump heated carcinogens into your bloodstream at a moderately similar rate, even if one does taste of watermelon. The second issue is one of deeply held principles: vaping will simply never be cool. At least cigarettes have a certain allure, conjuring up images of smoke-filled bars and illicit liaisons. Your average vaper, on the other hand, probably has the sexual prowess of a mildly dyspraxic badger.

Thus, to avoid flocks of chong-toting beanie-wearers giving Big Tobacco the moral high ground, I propose an immediate ban on all forms of inhaled nicotine. There’ll be more cold turkey than Boxing day, and shakes pushing onto the Richter scale, but at least we’ll all be in it together.

NO (62%) — Alex Beckett

The cigarette and its ancestors, in the cigar and the pipe, have been around for donkeys’ years. They have faithfully starred in our greatest films, sustained the workers of entire industries, and offered respite and a chat to those fed up with the club’s awful techno music. Yet, over the summer of 2021, certain English councils started banning smoking even on pavements outside pubs, restaurants, and cafés. This was a move in line with the UK government’s ambitious aim to render the country “smoke-free” by 2030. As someone who neither smokes nor holds a stake in the tobacco industry, I can still say, quite comfortably, that such blanket bans on cigarette consumption are practically farcical and philosophically untenable.

Now, I must clarify, to ban smoking indoors is actually quite reasonable: firstly it’s a fire hazard, and secondly a situation in which you and your company may be trapped in a room with your own fumes, much like those who still take baths, and who thereby wash themselves in their own dirt. But here we are not discussing the indoor smoking ban, rather the threat of a future outdoor one; the latter of which lacks the solid argumentation supporting the first.

Indeed, the reason for which the 2007 smoking ban only affected indoor smoking was because the arguments for it simply don’t apply to outdoor smoking. Unless one happens to be standing beside a spontaneously spawned campfire, or a conveniently arranged firework stall, the modern British high street has seldom a fire danger on it. Even if it did, the fire that would be started by a stray cigarette would almost certainly be manageable. Additionally, the dilemma of trapping harmful fumes dissipates, as physics reminds us that hotter gases rise inevitably over those that are cooler, i.e., smoke rises. The two arguments that terminated indoor smoking therefore do not apply to a cig on the sidewalk.

The new argument, which would permit the banishment of outdoor smoking, is truly more pernicious and sinister, for it’s of a paternalism which is (or should be) unacceptable even to the most submissive among us. The new argument is based purely, and I emphasise purely, on health. Some may argue pithily that it reduces litter, which is plainly a smokescreen. Others will suggest that it’s to protect those who can’t properly budget from emptying their pockets on some of the most highly taxed goods you can buy; this argument is not only a snobbish one, but is typically made in bad faith and is certainly not the solution needed by economically disadvantaged people who happen to smoke considerably.

You may ask yourself: “The ban may be based on health, but surely smoking is only unhealthy?” This is exactly the question the do-gooders want you to wonder. It then seems commonsensical to ban it. However, it doesn’t philosophically hold up. There is a myriad of things not yet banned, despite the fact that they are similar to smoking, in that they provide short-term pleasure and long-term health drawbacks: most forms of social media, alcohol, fast food, energy drinks, and pornography. These things listed aren’t going to be banned anytime soon; they’re either too trendy or too profitable. Surely it is hypocritical to ban anything on the grounds of “health” if you’re still prepared to prop up equally damaging industries because they’re a little more widespread or slightly harder to control?

Thanks to the COVID pandemic, and the lockdowns imposed to restrain it, there seems to be a new surge in popularity for paternal state interventions where they previously would have been seen as an atrocity. Such an analogy is also unhelpful when it comes to other, more menial, unhealthy habits of the nation, of which smoking is a good example. State intervention was justifiable when it came to COVID, because if one had COVID, and refused to abide by regulations, one could give COVID to other people. These people may then have died. Smoking – outdoors – is by no means the same thing. When a smoker breathes on you, they don’t make you smoke, nor do they give you the lung cancer (or other comparable conditions) that repeated smoking may incur.

I suspect, to conclude, that this idea of outlawing smoking in public is simply another modern case of over-rationalised inhumanity, proposed by the know-it-alls and life-perfectors who believe all human foibles can be smoothed over. In terms of percentage of population, according to Statistica (2020), France has more than twice as many smokers as the UK, and in Greece it rises to 3.5 times as many. The life expectancies of each country? According to Ined (2018): in the UK, 81.3 years; in Greece, 81.9; and in France, 82.9. I’ve argued that this measure is indefensible, but quite frankly, it would seem ineffective also.

Image: Pixabay

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