Rod Liddle

I am angrier with the government about the smoking ban than the Iraq war

Rod Liddle says that the ban exemplifies all that is wrong with Labour: nannying piety, control freakery and an endless capacity for lies. What’s more, it’s put him to considerable inconvenience

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This week we have been bombarded with statistics about how the smoking ban, introduced exactly six months ago, has not remotely damaged the pub trade, but has resulted in millions upon millions of people giving up smoking — so that cancer is now a thing of the past. The shovel-faced government minister Dawn Primarolo will have been on your television news spouting these transparent lies and adding, for good effect, that the battle is not yet entirely won: an estimated nine million people in Britain still smoke and the government intends to sort them out, in the fullness of time. I am still not sure what I hate the most about this government: its decision to invade Iraq and thus either effect or facilitate the murder of 500,000 Iraqis, or its decision to stop me from smoking in pubs and restaurants.

I realise I have a problem with perspective and view the world from a position which is what you might call solipsistic. Obviously the dead Iraqis, not to mention our British servicemen, are a far greater calumny to lay at the feet of New Labour than a measure which merely makes my life about 20 per cent more miserable than it was before. But I can’t help it, and every time I see Primarolo spouting her rubbish my sense of proportion warps still further: I think I hate them more for the smoking ban. It sort of sums up everything that’s rotten about them; the meddling, nannying control-freakery; the perpetual obeisance to fashion and susceptibility to the outrageous claims and demands of single-issue pressure groups; the piety and self-righteousness; the notion that they can live our lives for us better than we can. And the recourse to downright lies when the fatuity of their position is exposed.

Only an imbecile would swallow the statement that our pub trade has not been catastrophically reduced as a direct result of the smoking ban. If you doubt this for a second, look at your local pub: what do your eyes tell you? In the summer and autumn, the pubs were indeed a strange sight to behold — almost entirely empty inside, everyone crowded on the pavement either to smoke, or to talk to their friends who smoked. As winter bit down, the crowds outside the pubs dispersed, but there were no greater numbers of people sitting at the tables inside. They were all at home, drinking and smoking, sticking large needles into effigies of Primarolo and the former health secretary Pat Hewitt.

The overpaid harridans at ASH bung out occasional press releases which are designed to be disingenuous: after the ban was introduced in Scotland, ASH did a survey which ‘revealed’ that ‘one quarter of Scots were more likely to visit pubs’ as a consequence. This is as meaningless a statistic as it’s possible to find. But because it would run counter to their agenda, neither the government nor ASH have bothered to collate the figures as to what has really happened to the pub trade. All the same, you can get a glimmering by reading the trade journals and scouring the local newspapers from around the country. In Oxfordshire one paper reported a drop of 50 per cent in pub sales, with several publicans announcing that they were going out of business, losing more than £1,000 per week. In Norfolk, by August — one month into the ban — two pubs announced they would be closing down as a result, with an estimated 40 per cent drop in trade. In Lewes, in East Sussex, the drop in trade was 25 per cent; in Bexhill 20 per cent. The publicans in Malton, in Yorkshire, announced that their livelihoods had been ‘devastated’ by the ban; in Huddersfield there were more reports of pubs giving up the ghost. And all of these reports came in long before the weather turned distinctly chilly. As I say, all you have to do is look at your local pub: is it busier than was the case a year ago? Or is it deserted? And the people who come in — do they stay as long as they used to?

Of course, one shouldn’t drop a policy simply because the pubs are having a rather hard time of it as a result. But in which case, don’t bother to pretend that they’re not, that actually there are queues all down the street consisting of shiny, happy people who wish nothing more than to drink in a new, healthy, smoke-free environment. Stop lying. Say, instead, that the smoke ban is putting pubs out of business but actually we couldn’t give a toss. Truth is, the government — and the health charities — are caught by their previous, gerrymandered poll findings which purported to suggest that the entire country was in favour of a complete ban on smoking everywhere, when — and again, do a quick vox pop if you doubt this — the reverse was true. People would like to see genuinely smoke-free areas of restaurants and pubs, for sure — but only chose a complete ban on smoking when the alternative on the poll sheet was ‘or would you like your testicles sawn off?’.

Perhaps it is true, though, that because of the ban, I shall live for ever, for which many thanks, Dawn. But I doubt it; we will have recourse to one or another means of killing ourselves, such as driving a car (4,000 deaths per year), drinking more (40,000 deaths per year) or visiting a doctor (30,000 deaths per year through negligence or incompetence: never forget that figure. It exceeds the numbers killed through smoking-related illness. And it really, really hacks off the doctors).

In fact, life expectancy figures tend to refute the notion that there is a direct link between early death and smoking. Indeed, those countries with some of the highest life expectancies in the world (Austria, for example) also have the highest numbers of smokers (in Austria, more than double our own rate of smokers, at 50 per cent). If I were as fond of false correlations as the self-important twits working for charities such as ASH, I would ascribe a correlation between those two statistics — but of course, there isn’t one, unless it is simply the case that people who are not hounded by the authorities over their personal predilections tend to live longer than those who are.