William Atkinson

Oxford’s petty war on smokers

Oxford's petty war on smokers
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Life is about to get even more miserable for smokers living in Oxford. Oxfordshire county council has announced plans to make the region ‘smoke-free’ by 2025. Smokers will be prevented from having a puff outside cafes, pubs, and restaurants, while employers will be asked to impose smoke-free spaces in workplaces. Hospitals, schools, and public areas will be urged to ban smoking, and lighting up will be discouraged in homes and other private spaces. In short, Marlboro retailers hoping to ply their wares anywhere between Banbury and Henley are going to be out of luck.

I’m not a smoker and I have no desire to be. The combination of a wheezy grandfather and a chronic lack of funds has meant a tobacco habit has never held much attraction. But Oxfordshire’s crusade against smoking is not only the latest frustrating example of petty authoritarianism on the parts of our virtue-signalling local councils, but a worrying sign of the extreme approach taken by some to post-Covid public health.

Smoking has long been unfashionable. University students like me cannot remember a world where smoking wasn’t banned in pubs. Years of heavy taxation, the concealment of cigarettes in shops, and the gruesome images of rotting gums, bleeding eyeballs and impotent blokes plastered on packets, have together formed a concerted effort by health-conscious governments to stamp smoking out. 

The percentage of smokers in the population was 14 per cent in 2019, a steady decline from almost half in the early 1970s. Even before the council’s intervention, smoking was becoming as out of date as flares, Ted Heath, and the Bay City Rollers.

But despite this, according to civil liberties campaigner Josie Appleton, local councils have become possessed by a ‘smoke-free ideology’: a zealous conviction that smoking is immoral and needs preventing. 68 per cent of councils have some form of ban on employees smoking, with 49 banning smoking breaks entirely. 

Northumberland, Durham, North Tyneside, Newcastle, and Manchester have all made banning smoking a precondition for granting pavement licences for outdoor seating areas. Smoking is banned in civic centres, country parks and outside facilities in Denbighshire, and from the beach in Swansea and Pembrokeshire. For councils hoping to flex their consciousness, banning smoking is the 2021 equivalent of declaring a ‘Nuclear Free Zone’.

But Oxfordshire’s desire to become ‘smoke-free’ within four years has implications much grander than usual acts of local government virtue-signalling. Rather than simply discouraging smokers through a few well-placed posters of toothless crones and middle-aged blokes with disappointed wives, the council wants to actively strip people of their freedom to choose to smoke. Is this really the purpose of the council? Shouldn't they be concentrating on the day job, and ensuring the bins get emptied on time?

After the last year, this restrictive approach to public health seems all too familiar. It is no surprise that Oxfordshire’s announcement comes soon after professor Chris Whitty highlighted that 90,000 British people died of tobacco-related conditions last year.

The chances of smoking being banned entirely out of a spurt of ‘smoke-free’ moralism seem greater by the day: in Spain, regional governments last year introduced a smoking ban in public places under the cover of preventing the spread of the virus. The Local Government Association tried

to get a similar amendment attached to the government’s planning bill. If one really wanted to discourage smoking, a better approach would be to encourage vaping instead. But since many councils (Hull being the outlier) treat vaping as the same as smoking, it is obvious that what really lies behind this approach is a snooty disapproval of smoking in any form.