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Why We Should Legalise Smoking

What Sunak Gets Wrong About Smoking

“Do you know what artists sitting around talking and smoking and drinking is? It's called the history of art.”

Fran Lebowitz’s shrewd observation perfectly captures the case for smoking indoors — the decline of which has had disastrous consequences for our civilisation. Before you roll your eyes and turn to another article, I implore you to hear me out! I am not delusional; I will not deny the obvious health benefits of not smoking. I simply want to illuminate the kernels of truth in the much-maligned pro-smoking perspective.

Imagine if all the greats, most of whom were smokers, had been compelled to pop outside to take their cigarettes. Their ground-breaking discussions would have been profoundly disrupted. As Lebowitz puts it, “What would Picasso have missed, had he been forced to get up and go outside to smoke?” I weep for today’s artists and all their never-painted Guernicas.

Whether or not the crackdown on indoor smoking and the stagnation of modern art are correlated (they are), this symbolic example demonstrates the unexpected consequences of well-intentioned policies. By prioritising ‘public health’, governments sweep away the less tangible benefits that poor health decisions can bring.

Blaming too many heavy meals for his bad reaction to COVID-19, Boris Johnson introduced mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menus. This sickeningly out-of-touch policy warranted a much bigger backlash than it received. All the studies show that obesity is caused by food deserts and poverty — not by too many fancy meals with friends. For most of us, dining at a restaurant is a rare and quasi-sacred experience. It marks a special occasion when we can switch off and enjoy good cooking and good company. Much like indoor smoking, this little human indulgence has been desecrated on the altar of the Nanny State. She watches us, teeth barred and clipboard in hand, from the ink under the description of the chocolate fudge brownie.

Rishi Sunak, notorious for his love of indoor cycling and diet coke, has escalated the war on fun. He recently pledged to ban the sale of cigarettes to people born after the 1st of January 2009. This genuinely crazed idea will not turn Britain into a smoke-free utopia (as if any utopia could be smoke-free). Instead, it will push the sale of tobacco into the hands of criminal gangs, depriving the NHS of the enormous revenue it generates by taxing smokers. The hated Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 — the cause of the mad 10 o’clock alcohol rush — is another one of these ludicrous policies. It does nothing to stop alcoholism but has ruined thousands of promising nights out. Though her policies rarely help, the Nanny State rumbles along, picking up speed as she goes. If she gets her way, we’ll be running state-mandated marathons and chewing on almonds à la Yolanda Hadid

I will concede that banning indoor smoking was probably one of the better modern health regulations. And, given that they still haven’t invented cigarettes that don’t give you cancer, it would be wrong to resurrect smoking inside every venue. In fact, even in pubs and clubs, there are partygoers with health conditions that could be made worse by second-hand smoke. But there’s a lot of room for manoeuvre between a 60s-style ‘smoke wherever you like’ scenario and an outright ban. I propose an Italian system where smoking is prohibited in at least half of every establishment. Here, both the principle of liberty and the lungs of non-smokers would be protected. We’d be free, as is our right, to make bad decisions.

I wonder if readers are familiar with the cigarette sequence in the 2012 film adaptation of Anna Karenina. It stars Kiera Knightley and Jude Law as Anna and Karenin. This side of the indoor smoking ban, it is one of the most glamorous scenes in cinema. Set at a lavish Russian ball, Law swirls around Knightley like a prima danseur, thrusting a cigarette into her hand before encircling her and lighting it with a match. The moment wonderfully evokes the undeniable link between cigarettes and seduction. It serves as a testament to their eternal allure. Smoking will never go out of fashion. Rather than forcing it underground, the government should carve out little nooks where the occasional indoor cigarette can be tolerated — if not, enjoyed.

Illustration by Lindsay Martin

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