Why I now agree with the smoking ban…

I once opposed the smoking ban. But now I realise why it was largely unopposed and why the new law settled in rather well.

If the Government had tried to ban smoking in the 1970s there would have been uproar. Society was not informed to the extent it is today about the health consequences of smoking and passive smoking. 

From the 1970s attitudes changed rapidly. Pubs, restaurants and hotels were already starting to respond. JD Wetherspoon is a big example of a company that independently decided to ban smoking in its premises. Many more places at least had no smoking areas. Long before the legislation was passed there was a significant attitude that viewed smoking in public spaces as dirty, unhealthy and inconsiderate. 

It was only after this shift in attitudes that legislation was acceptable to society and thus practical. Libertarian opponents complained that it was an affront to individual liberty, however their stance was not reinforced by social attitudes whereas Parliament’s ban was. 

There are many other cases such as compulsory seat-belts and anti-discrimination laws, where legislation mirrors changing attitudes and is therefore reinforced by society.

It is a slow process, in fact a very Conservative process, whereby the law reflects and is reinforced by social and cultural evolution. This is the only way that law can be made. An attempt to impose a law that is completely unsubstantiated by wider attitudes, such as Prohibition in the United States, will ultimately fail.

It will be interesting to see which social norms today become abnormal tomorrow and eventually outlawed.


12 thoughts on “Why I now agree with the smoking ban…

  1. Like freedom of speech perhaps? Don’t laugh – it’s already happening.

    I despise smoking, never done it and utterly loathe it – but what this government did in banning smoking in areas where it (used to have) no jurisdiction was disgraceful.

  2. The reason why the government hitherto had no jurisdiction in this area is because it was impractical. However, the situation changed. In society the balance shifted against those who thought it was okay to smoke in public spaces. Legislation mirrored this change which is why the ban settled in fairly well.

  3. I’m confused, you’re acceptance of the smoking ban is based on the fact that other people generally agree with it, or at least tolerate it, rather than whether it stands on its own merits?

    The whole point of libertarianism (or just a belief in freedom) is that just because a majority of society doesn’t like something isn’t grounds to ban it.

    The fact that society generally likes to see its own misguided prejudice enforced on others isn’t an argument for said prejudice is it?


  4. Richard,

    My central point is that if the government had tried to impose this ban 30 years ago it would have met serious opposition. As it is, the ban has been fairly well accepted. This, I would contend, has a great deal to do with changing attitudes to smoking over recent years. In this context, legislation has mirrored and is reinforced by social change.

    As for imposing upon others, it should noted that it is only smoking in public places that has been banned where our collective views of what behaviour is acceptable is in constant flux. Smoking is a habit that became more and more unacceptable as time went on, and was then reinforced by legislation.

    This has, if I’m honest, challenged my view. Freedom is an important concept, however the range of freedoms we have are often set in a social framework of which is in a constant state of flux.

  5. Daniel

    I take your central point, the ability of governments to impose legislation is certainly hindered and aided by public opinion, as a statement this isn’t particularly controversial. However I agree it is interesting to note how social attitudes can change, and the impact that may have!

    I don’t deny that public attitudes have shifted against smoking. In some ways this is quite laudable.

    What I find strange is that it’s the change in other peoples opinion that has challenged and (I assume) shifted your view. Personally I’d have to consider whether changes in the public attitude were good and justified, which is something your article doesn’t attempt to address and left me unsure of what you were suggesting.

    Just to note the imposition upon others occurs not just to the smokers who are forced outside, but those who own restaurants, bars and shops and wish to allow smoking on their privately owned premises. Personally I believe such an owner should have authority to decide whether he wishes to permit smoking or not.

    At any rate it was an interesting post.


  6. My view did change. As a human I will tend reflect broader social change. I don’t think this is surprising. There are a whole range of issues that people change their minds on depending on what their peers think. We are free, but as I say, within a evolving social framework.

    Are social attitudes towards smoking good and justified? Probably. Smoking is an unhealthy pursuit for those who do it and those who breath it in. I suspect that this has been the main drive behind social attitudes towards smoking in recent years.

    As for your last comment, I have sympathy with it. I have in fact just been arguing in favor of owners on another thread! However, I think there are any number of regulations that owners have to comply with. These, like the smoking ban, often reflect and are therefore substantiated by social attitudes.

  7. I thought the conservative party was the party of freedom and liberty. I guess not.

    If someone wants to go into a bar or club where all the rooms have cuban cigar smoke pumped through the ventilators then, provided they have agreed to it, the government has no right, none whatsoever, to deny that person that experience.

    And again, I reiterate, I loathe smoking. This is purely a freedom of the individual to decide how to live their life and the property rights of other individuals issue.

  8. It’s undeniable that culture generally plays a part in the formation of our political views, but I cannot agree that it should determine them as you seem to suggest.

    As an individual I value my ability to critically analyze issues and sometimes agree with society – defined as you seem to imply as the majority – and sometimes do not. As a human I cherish this independence of thought.

    I do not accept that I am *wrong* because I disagree with society or *right* simply because my views happen to coincide with others, which seems to be the inevitable result of your position?

    I’m not really sure what else to say other than that I disagree that social attitudes need equate with what is right or good, and therefore should not act as some-sort of weathervane or arbiter of what one supports.

    History is littered with examples where a social framework has evolved in ways hugely detrimental to both the given society and those around it. How does the phrase ‘substantiated by social attitudes’ apply in these instances.

    I think you take relativism too far. It entirely possible to argue for a smoking ban, just not ideally on the grounds you propose.

  9. Richard,

    I’m not sure we disagree too much.

    I think you’re right. Social attitudes do not necessarily determine our views. It is powerful, but not completely.

    Also, I don’t think that social change is always right, and I do believe it should be viewed critically. However, on smoking, I think that social attitudes have changed for the better.

    From my own perspective it is the apparent ease with which this ban was imposed that made me reconsider the extent to which attitudes have changed and to consider why they have.


    I think it maybe a simplification to say the Conservative party stands for freedom and liberty full stop. I think their belief in organic society and intellectual imperfection for example, are quite fundamental. The smoking ban is highly compatible with these fundamental principles. The ban reflected changing social attitudes as much as it was imposed from above.

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