The Irish Smoking Ban – One Year On. Published 29th March 2005, Social Affairs Unit web log

In 2004 I contributed a piece to the web log of the Social Affairs Unit, a libertarian-leaning think tank affiliated to the Institute of Economic Affairs. I had come across Digby Anderson’s book Losing Friends somewhere along the way, was impressed with the scope of the book and discovered the SAU and its blog.

I was never asked to take a particular political or cultural line with the SAU. No piece I wrote was ever edited for politics, so to speak. The blog’s editor once suggested I write a review of the Dr Who revival, which I never did. Most of my pieces for the blog are fairly straightforward book reviews or pieces with a cultural bent – as can be seen here .

I don’t think any one political system or philosophy is enough to approach the world. I have concluded that I am not a full throated libertarian, after all. It is too inclined to rather simplistic solutions that involve abolishing this or that (the mirror image of statism) However, if there’s a binary choice between being a libertarian and a statist, I’m the former.

But there isn’t such a binary choice. Perhaps my political stance is best defined as anti-binaryism.

This piece is ultimately impressively non committal about its subject. I note the commentators include doctors who are keen to point of the evil of smoking, which I kind of take for granted in the piece. Someone chimed in with a similar comment on this more recent piece on the Manhattan Project.

What is also striking is how, 11 years on, the smoking ban is utterly taken for granted. This pieces was a rare attempt at topicality on my part (aside from occasionally writing about an anniversary, I find I don’t really do topical pieces)

Anyhow, here it is:

Towards the end of 2004 I bought a computer magazine which featured, for some reason, a timeline of the major events of the last half decade or so – not just in computing but in the wider world. Thus beside the launch the iPOD and Windows XP, we had September 11th and the beginning of the Iraq War. In the middle of these indisputable events of global importance, in March 2004 we read that “Ireland introduces a ban on smoking in public”.

March 2004 saw Ireland the focus of global media attention, for once not due to paramilitary activity of some kind. Smoking bans are all the rage internationally, and a live issue in British politics. For a certain mentality, there was something exciting about Ireland, for once, not following the trends of other more ‘progressive’ countries but setting them.

One of the ironies of all this was that the pub is so central to the Irish international image that it was the basis for all the coverage in the world media. Most commentators seemed struck by the piquant irony that the drinkin’, swearin’, fightin’ Irish would be embracing the healthy life in their drinking dens.

The ban, of course, is not by any means confined to pubs. All workplaces are included – with certain exceptions such as prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Pubs, of course, are one of this country’s most successful exports. No town of any size anywhere is complete without a pub called something like Dicey O’Reilly’s or Scruffy Murphy’s, filled with faux-Irish décor, wannabe Irish drinkers and indeed, rather embarrassingly, actual Irish drinkers crying into their Guinness.

A few months after the ban was introduced, the English movie actor Paul Bettany was quoted expressing his amazement that the ban was still in force; “I thought the Irish would have risen up as one to overthrow it”. For the ban, as became apparent within weeks, was – in its own terms – wildly successful. A pub in Galway announced its defiance and a few days later backed down, a bored Fine Gael T.D. (M.P.) lit up in the Oireachtas largely for publicity reasons and to get out of a rather tedious front-bench job. That was, roughly speaking, the extent of the mass civil disobedience.

Those whose experience of Ireland was based on more than a few nights on the beer singing rebel songs were perhaps less surprised. The Irish are far less the feckless anti-authoritarian individualists of popular legend than we are world leaders in radio call-in show whingeing.

Healthism with its ubiquitous health promotion messages is as strong in Ireland as anywhere else in the world. When I was in Australia, another country with an ostentatiously laid-back image, it seemed impossible to move very far without some public health message or other being shoved in one’s face. In Melbourne I finally found it going too far with little stickers on traffic meters warning pedestrians not to jaywalk. Ireland is heading that way too. Most ads seem to be related to some health worry or other these days. The papers are filled with apocalyptic warnings of the forthcoming Biblical plague of obesity – ignoring the recent report that we are one of the less obese nations of Europe, according to theInternational Obesity Task Force.

No doubt most readers will have their own opinion on the advisability or otherwise of smoking bans. As for myself, the freedom to smoke cigarettes in enclosed public spaces does not strike me as one of those immemorial freedoms you could give up your life for. The purpose of this article however is not to get stuck in that debate, but simply to report how life has changed – or rather how little it has changed – in the year since.

From a purely selfish point of view as a non-smoker, the ban has made things more pleasant on a night out. Indeed, many people I know are now much more prepared to go into a pub during the day for a meal as opposed to only on a night out. No longer do I come home from a night out with clothes smelling like a sweaty ashtray. No longer the coughing or streaming eyes as another diner or patron lights up at the next table. So, from pure self-interest, I am all in favour of the smoking ban.

The apocalyptic consequences the Vintner’s Federation had warned of – the Republic’s social life decamping en masse to the North, and the streets filling with starving publicans begging for their daily bread – did not come to pass. Soon billboards showing smiling, satisfied drinkers extolled “the breath of fresh air” that had swept the “greatest pubs in the world” – a certain megalomania is one of the unfortunate side effects of the economic boom in Ireland. One Dublin radio station proudly promotes itself as serving “the greatest city in the world”. Does anyone, even the most patriotic citizen, really believe that?

One wonders if, in the long term, there will be any fewer smokers as a result of the ban. The little knots of smokers outside each pub soon became a familiar sight, and in these little groups they often seemed to be having quite a bit of fun. Indeed, in its status as a social lubricant, the cigarette has been enhanced rather than diminished. In due course there will surely be smoking-huddle marriages, and no doubt smoking-huddle babies are already filling out their Pampers. The outlaw image of smoking is surely enhanced by bans. It has become a mysterious Other, the little world of the smoking huddle, and we all know the attraction of the mysterious Other.

The ban was originally meant to come in on January 1st 2004 – for a variety of bureaucratic reasons, it was delayed until March 29th, which was fortunate for its proponents. One wonders if this innovation had come during a freezing midwinter as opposed to a reasonable spring if there would have been the increase in general hooliganism that was widely touted pre-ban. Having said that, an orthopaedic surgeon did note a couple of weeks into the ban that there had been a sharp increase in fractured jaws as a result of smoking huddle melees. Little further has been reported on this phenomenon.

Many of my friends claim that in a nightclub, the odour of cigarette smoke acted as a sort of deodorant, and what formerly would have been a seductive, erotic haze is now replaced by an unappealing blend of sweat, flatulence and alcohol. Fortunately, perhaps, I have yet to notice this, or perhaps I was less than seduced by the odour of the average Dublin nightclub even before the ban.

If there has been a definite effect of the ban so far, it is that tolerance of smoking – in the most basic sense of being able to put up with it – has been greatly reduced. Any exposure to any smoke at all is now a big deal. In Birmingham last year for a course, wandering Broad Street on a Saturday evening looking for something to eat, I found myself at first irritated and then slightly baffled by the pub smokers. Thus, something which probably wouldn’t have bothered me a few months before became a source of (albeit minor) distress. Whatever the rights and wrongs of smoking bans, my stock of toleration has become ever so slightly diminished. Readers will have their own view as to whether this is a good or bad thin