By Alexander Chancellor
Campaigners will not be happy until Britain is completely cigarette-free, says Alexander Chancellor.
In proposing a ban on smoking in cars and outdoor spaces, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) says that its only concern is for the health of our children. But I simply don’t believe it. It seems perfectly obvious that this is the beginning of a final push by the British medical establishment to make this country completely cigarette-free.
We are used to accepting sheepishly the most implausible medical statistics, but when the RCP report into the impact of passive smoking states that more than 300,000 GP consultations and 9,500 hospital admissions result from children breathing second-hand smoke, one’s credulity is strained to breaking point. How could anybody know this? And how could anybody be sure that passive smoking is responsible, among other things, for 100 per cent increases in the risks of meningitis and cot deaths and for a 35 per cent increase in middle-ear infections? Nobody could be sure of this, just as nobody could plausibly claim to know how much passive smoking by children costs the NHS in treatment (£23.3 million, according to the RCP).
But no matter. These claims are made only for propaganda purposes in the furtherance of the final objective of ridding Britain entirely of smokers. Buoyed by the success of the 2007 law against smoking in enclosed public spaces, and by opinion polls showing that a large majority favour ever-tougher smoking restrictions, doctors believe that they now have public support for measures that would eventually lead to a ban on anyone smoking anywhere, even in private. A car, after all, is a private space belonging to its owner, just as a house or a flat is. If it is acceptable to stop people smoking in their cars, it should be equally acceptable to stop them smoking at home.
And to pre-empt accusations that either ban would infringe the basic freedom of the individual, the medical establishment invokes the welfare of children as its justification. Although most car drivers don’t have children as passengers, the RCP wants a ban on smoking in all vehicles because it would be easier to enforce. Even Martin Dockrell, the director of policy at the anti-smoking group ASH and one of the authors of the report, admitted yesterday that this would be an “injustice” to the drivers of cars without children in them, but added: “That injustice is completely outweighed by the current injustice of the harm that’s done to kids.”
There is still controversy about the effects of second-hand smoke on the health of non-smokers. Smokers who have inhaled first-hand smoke for decades without suffering any apparent damage to their own health (and such people do, believe it or not, exist) find it hard to accept that they are endangering others with their habit. One such is the artist David Hockney, who was yesterday quoted as saying: “I don’t believe a word they say about passive smoking. I have smoked for 52 years and I’m still here working away very ambitiously.” But even accepting that, in all probability, smoking in an enclosed space doesn’t do anybody any good, it is hard to disagree with Forest, the group that lobbies on behalf of smokers’ rights, when it says: “Smoking in outdoor areas poses little nor no threat to anyone’s health.” Professor John Britton, chairman of the RCP’s Tobacco Advisory Group, implicitly accepts this when he says that the report “isn’t just about protecting children from passive smoking, it’s about taking smoke completely out of children’s lives”.
The justification for banning smoking in parks is not, therefore, that it has a deleterious effect on children’s health, but that they are going to be corrupted by seeing adults puffing away. It is claimed, perhaps rightly, that children whose parents smoke are more likely to do so themselves later on – and the aim of the RCP is to arrange things so that no child ever again sees anyone with a cigarette in his mouth. Fortunately, even the RCP recognises the impossibility of enforcing a smoking ban on people in their own homes and therefore does not, for the moment, propose it. But when smoking has stopped everywhere else, the attention of the medical authorities will doubtless turn to the scandal of parents smoking at home and it will be redefined and made criminal as another form of child abuse.