Smoking could be banned in offices and factories, restaurants and most pubs within four years under plans unveiled by the government. The plans form part of Health Secretary John Reid's White Paper on Public Health, and are expected to become part of the government's manifesto for next year's general election. The government is to be praised for adopting a bold and controversial position for the sake of potentially huge public health gains.

If the ban progresses as planned, government departments and the NHS will be smoke free by the end of 2006 and by 2008 the ban will be enforced in all workplaces, restaurants, cafes and pubs that serve food (currently 70% of the total). The ban has received a mixed response. Anti-smoking campaigners have complained that limiting the ban to pubs that serve food will lead to disputes over the definition of prepared meals, and mean that working class people who tend to drink in pubs that don't serve food will go on smoking while the middle classes are encouraged not to smoke. However, perhaps current perception of the response of bar landlords is questionable. Certainly after Ireland's ban, not only were profits not affected, but also more non-smokers ventured into pubs (BBC News, 31 May). And as far as who might quit, laws have never been the prime motivator for quitting, whereas societal taboos are. 'Redefinition of the unacceptable' has always been a powerful motivator for behavioural change. Perhaps a culture increasingly intolerant of smoking will be the biggest incentive for all smokers to quit. Observations on American trends illustrate this; smoking is increasingly perceived as socially unacceptable where bans are in force (Tobacco Control, December).

The announcements have also led to renewed claims from libertarians that Labour is 'nannying' the public. The Christian worldview, however, holds that the purpose of the state is to encourage what is right and to punish the wrongdoer (1 Peter 2:14; Romans 13:3-4), and so would naturally encourage the enforcement of the good in spite of public reticence. While smoking per se is arguably morally neutral (presuming one can do it without jeopardising the welfare of anyone else), addiction is certainly not, since anything that vies for dominance in our thoughts and desires with God is at best unhelpful and at worst idolatry. The potential health benefits are of course huge with billions spent each year on smoking related diseases.

As Polly Toynbee points out in the Guardian (17 November), with the once reviled seat belt laws, what once seemed a preposterous imposition, soon becomes accepted as common practice. And it may well prove that the most affected individuals are largely on side, since 70% of smokers want to give up anyway. Perhaps today's outrageous directive will prove to be tomorrow's shrewd decision.


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