The smoking of tobacco had already had a long history before Sir Walter Raleigh reputedly introduced the habit to the court of Elizabeth I in the late 1500s. Archaeological evidence in fact suggests that tobacco use dates back to at least 10,000BC.
The modern age of smoking might be said to have begun in 1880 when cigarettes were first mass-produced in the USA and when, as a result of the fall in price, consumption soared, not only among men but also, increasingly, among women.
Elizabeth’s successor, James I, was a famous opponent of tobacco smoking1 and the habit has always been disparaged by many as an anti-social and immoral activity but the modern drive against smoking perhaps starts in 1950 when Richard Doll and A. Bradford Hill published their Smoking and Carcinoma of the Lung. Since then, through argument and counter-argument, accusation and refutation, smoking has come to be accepted as a major cause of ill health and premature death by all but a stubborn minority of self-deluded smokers.
Once a virtually universal practice, smoking is today a controlled minority pastime seen as anti-social because injurious to smokers and by-standers alike and a burden on the health services. In England, smoking was banned in the workplace and in “enclosed and substantially enclosed”2 public places from July 1st 2007, but such a ban had already been enacted in Scotland in March 2006 and in Ireland in March 2004.
Tigger and I went on holiday in Ireland in 2006 and rejoiced in the fact that we could go into pubs, cafes and restaurants and not be troubled by tobacco smoke. We eagerly anticipated the start of the ban in England and were relieved when it finally came into force.
One of the interesting discoveries on our recent courier run to Bilbao occurred when we entered a bar and found ourselves in a scene reminiscent of an English pub in the bad old days: people were sitting at tables or at the bar, happily puffing away at cigarettes and the air was blue with tobacco smoke. Spain, it turned out, has only a partial smoking ban though a new, tougher law comes into effect in 2011.
It need hardly be said that the smoking ban has changed English culture, both for the better and, in some instances, for the worse. Generally, the improvement in our daily lives has been huge. When people impute economic disadvantages to it, pointing to the mass closures of pubs, I think they are wrong and that smoking has nothing to do with this (some pubs became non-smoking before the deadline and did not see wholesale defection of customers). It is more likely that other social changes (including the availability of cheap booze in supermarkets), have led to the decline of the traditional pub.
All in all, the ban has been a positive experience, at least for us non-smokers. Three years later, however, memories of the moment when the ban started have begun to fade and these days we tend to take it for granted, instead finding it a shock to visit countries where people still smoke pubs and cafes.
There is little doubt that the ban has helped change the public’s attitude to smoking. Whereas we were once hardly aware of people smoking beside us in the pub or restaurant, these days the least whiff of tobacco smoke is instantly noticed and deplored. From being a complacent majority, smokers are today an embattled group, forced to leave their seats and go outside to satisfy their craving.
One of the ways in which culture has been changed for the worse is that there is much more smoking in the streets and other open places such as parks. Walking in a crowded London street these days, it is hard indeed to dodge the pungent stink of cigarettes, pipes and cigars. As you enter or leave public places such as restaurants or railway stations, you run the gauntlet of the sad gaggle of smokers who gather around the doorway. At bus stops, you have to manoeuvre to avoid the inevitable “faggers”, polluting your air supply.
Bus shelters are another refuge for smokers despite the fact that there are “No Smoking” signs prominently displayed. In fact, smokers often cut these out and remove them as if they think we will be fooled into believing smoking is allowed within.
On Sunday, leaving our laundry churning away in the launderette, we went to the local Costa coffee bar and took coffee in the little back yard. It wasn’t long before a smoker joined us. We said nothing as this was permissible under the rules but we couldn’t help noticing that when he finished his cigarette and departed, he dropped the butt on the ground, leaving it for someone else to deal with, despite the fact that there was an ashtray on his table.
There is nothing unusual in this: observe smokers in the streets and you will see that most discard their cigarette ends on the ground, often without even bothering to extinguish them. Similarly, vehicle drivers use the open window of their van or car as their ashtray. Or consider the smoker waiting at the bus stop who, when the bus comes, drops the still burning cigarette on the ground, first taking a deep puff of smoke which he then slowly exhales aboard the bus, naively thinking no one will notice or, perhaps, with selfish disregard.
Things could be worse, though, and the smoking band has succeeded far better than most of us dared to hope. When smoking was banned on London Underground trains in July 1984, pessimists averred that it wouldn’t work. On the contrary, the ban was a success, and was followed by a complete ban on subsurface parts of the Underground after the King’s Cross fire in 1987, thought to have been caused by a smoker dropping a lighted match on one of the wooden escalators. Perhaps this increased our awareness of the risks of smoking and prepared us for the wider ban that was to follow.
As we sniffed and coughed over our food in a smoky Bilbao cafe, we reflected how far Britain had come from the days when a doctor could assure his patients that smoking was harmless and even a little beneficial because of the antiseptic effect of the smoke. Perhaps, though, this is not quite the end of the trail. If people cannot be persuaded to give up smoking altogether, can we not ban it entirely from the public space and designate it an activity to be conducted in private?
1His A Counterblaste to Smoking was published in 1604.
2For a definition of enclosed and substantially enclosed in this context, see Smokefree.