Today the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has called for a voluntary ban on smoking everywhere and anywhere that children play or learn. On the face of it that would seem like sensible advice - except it wouldn't be advice, it would be a command, albeit not one that is currently enforceable.
The vast majority of smokers I know would not choose to smoke around kids. Unlike non-smoking adults who can move away if they find the smoke unpleasant, kids don't always have that option and smokers appreciate this. However the debate appears to have moved on from the unpleasantness of smoke to whether or not all adults should be role models for their own and everyone else's kids. If you decide that they should be, where does it stop? Which other adult activities should be included and where would be left for adults to partake in them?
All of the above can easily be dismissed as an argument that the hedonistic freedom of adults should trump the protection of kids - and kids, as we know, are a powerful weapon in the arsenal of those who would restrict adult freedom to choose. But protection of kids from what? There is no evidence that second hand smoke outdoors harms anyone, or that seeing a stranger smoking in a park encourages kids to smoke. However, there is a darker side to this which even those who say 'it's for the smokers' own good' tend to ignore:
Smokers have long been viewed by the tobacco control industry as helplessly addicted victims of the tobacco industry who need saving from the 'evil weed'. But in order to gain the public support needed to pass laws in order to save these poor smokers, the public had to believe that they too were being saved from a threat - and second hand smoke was the perfect solution. People could see it and smell it, and if they also believed that it was killing them support would follow. What then transpired was a campaign to vastly exaggerate the harms of second hand smoke and the rest, as they say, is history.
But that's a good thing right? it paved the way for the smoking bans, which in turn 'persuaded' many smokers to quit, and so saved many lives. What it also did was bred intolerance in the non-smoking public, who, rather than see smokers either as tobacco control would have it, the addicted victims of the tobacco industry, or as many smokers would have it, adults making a perfectly legal choice albeit an unhealthy one, now saw smokers as a stinking underclass who were killing their children.
The implementation of the smoking bans was a double edged sword. Yes, it made enclosed public spaces a healthier and more pleasant place to be for non-smokers, and it gave many smokers an incentive to quit. However it also gave a strong signal to the non-smoking public that it is ok to marginalise, stigmatise and discriminate against other people based on their choices, even where those choices affect no one else.
The reasoning behind, and the issues with these proposed 'voluntary' bans is the same. The intention is to 'denormalise' smoking, which in practice means telling the public that a) smoking in kiddie areas is a widespread problem and b) it's harming your kids. It isn't and it doesn't. This is not about the placing of signs which inform smokers that they shouldn't smoke around places which are child specific; they know that already. It's about telling the public that smokers are too inconsiderate / nicotine addled / stupid to work it out for themselves and are therefore a threat to be combatted. As in any combative situation sides are drawn up, with smokers being the perceived 'enemy' to be beaten.
It seems to me that if there were an issue with people smoking around play areas then this could have been dealt with quietly by the placing of simple 'no smoking' signs, which are internationally recognised and were respected by smokers long before statutory smoking bans came into force. Local authorities need neither a 'campaign' to do this, nor anyone's permission. Such campaigns, and the intention of including spaces which are used by adults both with and without kids, are examples of 'virtue signalling' and fail to take into account the negative effect on smokers in their effort to display the fact that the proposers are 'doing something about it'. Few in the target audience ever stop to ask themselves whether there is actually a problem to solve, or whether this is the best way to go about solving it for all concerned.
The most worrying aspect of this is that voluntary bans rarely stay voluntary and their application never stops at the 'problem' initially identified. There is always another publicly funded health 'charity' who thinks that their particular cause deserves similar treatment, and once you assert that denormalisation works for one there is no argument against it working for them all. How far are we going to let our freedoms be eroded in pursuit of what is a health utopia for some, but a bland, grey-painted hell for the rest of us? How will you feel when you can't eat an ice cream in a park for fear of making someone else's child fat?
The solution to these problems, assuming they exist, is education. Teach people about safer, healthier options and support parents to parent. Don't teach and empower people to hate.
Author: Sarah Jakes