Too much fuss over ban on smoking

Local MP, John Grogan, considers smoking legislation

To ban or not to ban smoking is one of the most contentious issues currently facing Parliament– and it is one on which over the years I have changed my mind. Smoking is one of these issues on which opinion polls record a very low level of “Don’t Knows” – pretty much everybody has got a definite point of view one way or the other.

Now the Government is proposing a classic compromise. Smoking will be banned in public places in England, except for a small number of exceptions. As far as licensed premises such as pubs and restaurants are concerned, smoking will only be allowed where food is not being served.

Members’ Clubs such as Working Men’s Clubs would also be exempt. Sometimes in politics compromise can lead to old enmities being put aside and a new beginning, as in Northern Ireland. On other occasions however, compromise can lead simply to muddle and confusion, and I fear that the smoking proposals from the Government are a half way house that will end up pleasing nobody.

Firstly, what constitutes food? Will smoking be allowed where sandwiches or crisps are being consumed? What about a pub which sells food at lunchtimes but not in the evenings? The truth is that there will be a perverse incentive for some pubs to stop serving food altogether, which can hardly be a good thing when it comes to the campaign to cut down on binge drinking.

Secondly, if the primary concern is the health and safety of staff and protecting them from passive smoking, the suggestion that nobody should be allowed to smoke within one metre of the bar offers little comfort. Equally, it is hard to see why all members’ clubs should have the right to vote to put their staff at greater risk by continuing to allow smoking. If the Government’s proposals go through, some pubs may even find themselves under competitive pressure to convert into clubs or risk losing customers. New York, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden have all either banned smoking or are on the way to doing so.

The key votes on smoking will come in the New Year when amendments will be discussed. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are offering their MPs a free vote and I hope the Labour whips are as generous, as I intend to vote in favour of a complete ban. I realise that not everyone will thank me for it and there is the ever-present danger of a nanny state, but nevertheless I think it would be one of those issues that in ten years time if a ban is imposed people may ask what all the fuss was about.

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