Ever since the world and his wife were banished outdoors so that every mothballed bar, restaurant, pub and café could tentatively reopen, the pariahs for whom outdoors had become the officially designated space under ‘normal’ circumstances have found themselves being pushed even further onto the periphery of the action. And now, they’re about to be pushed so far away that they’re barely involved at all. Yes, I’m talking about polite society’s ultimate bogeyman, the smoker. I may no longer belong to that marginalised elite – having crossed over to the safer and cheaper (yet also smeared) community of vapers almost four years ago; but I was a smoker for enough decades to still feel aggrieved on the smoker’s behalf when he’s being singled out yet again by the powers-that-be. For me, the demonisation of smokers over the past few years has been a dummy run for the recent erosion of wider civil liberties that the pandemic has accelerated; and observing the gleefully spiteful removal of smokers’ rights seems to be an interesting – not to say worrying – premonition as to what will eventually befall everyone else before long.
Five local authorities – three Labour-led and two Tory – are doing their utmost to bring about the outlawing of smoking altogether by outlawing it in those undesirable corners of city centres that smokers had previously been relegated to; now that ‘decent’ customers have been herded towards the pavements courtesy of Covid restrictions, the thought of them mixing with those depraved smokers has provoked new measures. The City of Manchester, Northumberland County Council, Newcastle, North Tyneside and Durham have all banned smoking on the extended exterior premises of restaurants, pubs and cafés. Nobody gave a f**k when smokers were shivering alone in the shitty weather from 2007 onwards, yet now that the European-style ‘pavement café’ culture that Tony Blair was so eager to introduce during his time in office has been thrust upon every venue where people pay to eat and drink, pavement-dwellers’ lives suddenly matter and smokers are shoved aside yet again – and this time from a place they never wanted to be to begin with.
The collective amnesia that grips the country whenever we enjoy a warm spell is evident in the overnight proliferation of shorts, skimpy ensembles, sandals and sunburn in every open space, and whilst eating and drinking outside is fine in such conditions, this is England lest we forget. Perhaps earmarking 21 June as D-Day was done with the changeable climate in mind, curtailing the remaining restrictions in the hope we get there before the heavens open for the rest of the summer. Still, even when diners and drinkers migrate back indoors, the pavements currently cluttered with tables and chairs will remain verboten to the smoker. As we should know by now, authorities that taketh away do not giveth back. Hot on the heels of the five that have already implemented the policy, Oxfordshire will be the next local authority intending to forcibly exile the smoker to the outer rim of the social world as part of what is described by Oxfordshire County Council as a ‘strategy to make the county smoke-free by 2025’.
A statement from Oxfordshire County Council outlines the imminent pavement café smoking ban as merely one element of a far wider project that will include discouraging smokers from lighting-up both in their cars and in their homes. Mind you, anyone dim enough to follow such guidelines in those defiantly private spheres will probably be wearing a mask at the time, anyway, so a crafty fag would be something of a challenge. ‘Oxfordshire has set itself an ambitious aim to be smoke-free by 2025!’ the PR gushes. ‘Our tobacco-control strategy further outlines our smoke-free 2025 plans, which includes creating healthy and family-friendly smoke-free spaces.’ Fine – have your ‘healthy and family-friendly smoke-free spaces’, but bear in mind not everyone has a family, let alone kids, and many that do actually visit pubs in order to get away from them; pubs are not supposed to be bloody McDonald’s. Moreover, some people quite remarkably make their health a personal issue of autonomous choice – I know, incredible isn’t it? – rather than pass the responsibility on to either local or national government along with every other right to have been handed in to them like lost property.
If non-smokers are catered for and segregated from smokers in a smoke-free environment which they have chosen, is it therefore not fair and proper for smokers to have their ‘zones’ in which they can assert their individual rights too? I always thought the old system of smoking rooms or sealed-off sections in pubs and restaurants was a fair compromise to accommodate both parties; what we got in 2007 was something that told half the patrons that their custom wasn’t welcome; no wonder pub attendance plummeted swiftly in the years immediately after the ban came in. Yes, as a now ex-smoker, I perfectly understand the objections of those who don’t want their clothes and hair to be polluted by the powerful aroma of tobacco, but as long as smokers and non-smokers have their own socially-distanced corners – and particularly if they’re in the open air – that shouldn’t be an issue. I still believe smokers are entitled to consideration instead of persistent, petty punishment.
You would think, of all businesses brought to their knees by Covid, the hospitality industry would be going out of its way to welcome anyone back through its doors – or onto its pavement; and I suspect it probably would do were it not for anti-smoking zealots on local councils imposing their own sanctimonious agenda on businesses that desperately need to attract punters, not alienate them anew. The timing of this decision beggars belief, to be honest; you’d have thought the authorities could have at least waited for the hospitality industry to get back on its feet again before placing additional pressures on a business model that has suffered enough of late and is still struggling to attract pre-lockdown numbers because of that. I haven’t been to a pub, café or restaurant in this unappealing Brave New World, though everything I’ve heard of the experience doesn’t seem to make it worth bothering with anyway – and I haven’t lit a cigarette since 2017.
‘It’s no business of local councils if adults choose to smoke,’ says Simon Clark or pro-smoking lobby outfit Forest. ‘And if they smoke outside during working hours, that’s a matter for them and their employer, not the council.’ True enough, but we all knew the emergency measures acquired by authorities at the height of the pandemic would give them a newfound sense of their own power over the public. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the chance to diminish the rights of the smoker even further has been seized upon when those doing so have become drunk on moral crusading; if people can’t be nicked for sitting on park benches anymore, at least they can be nicked for lighting up. And it’s a safe bet they’ll get away with this one because everybody now hates a smoker.
At home, if the only remaining smoking friend of mine craves a cig when he visits, I ask him if he’d mind smoking it in the hallway outside the flat; I sit with him and don’t wag my finger once, so it’s not as if I’m playing the leader of the local council. I just don’t want the scent of baccy back in the flat when it took me so long to expunge all lingering traces of it – and the minute I stopped smoking, my sinuses lost their immunity to the stench, so I would notice its reappearance. But we’re talking about the interior of my poky little home here, not the open air, and not the public space outside business premises where nobody actually lives. There’s a difference. I’m not condemning my friend for retaining the habit and I’m not making a moral judgement by requesting he step into the hallway. Besides, I’m all-too aware that the vaper is already in the sights of the same zealots who have demonised the smoker. In the current climate, complacency can seriously damage your health.
© The Editor