Smoking bans and public norms

by Henry Farrell on June 12, 2009

“Marc Ambinder”: offers this general meditation on the changing politics of smoking.

That process has accelerated dramatically since 2004 when New York City essentially banned smoking in bars and restaurants. It seemed so wild at the time. Chris Hitchens wrote a hysterical Vanity Fair piece on his attempts to defy the ban. It seemed radical, the odd teetotaling of a mayor who also pursued trans fats with a vengeance. Now, of course, smoking bans are everywhere and while the libertarian in me finds them irksome, the fact is that the public has not revolted and tossed out politicians who impose them. Trans fats are under siege, too.

Consider it part of the beauty of federalism. The small ideas that incubate in laboratories of democracy, as the former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called the states, have grown wildly. Causality is the hardest thing to trace. But I suspect without the heavy-duty smoking bans begun in earnest after 2004 in Mike Bloomberg’s New York, you wouldn’t have seen the conditions change so dramatically that the passage of FDA regulation of tobacco is a relatively minor story.

For me, the interesting question is not so much the spread of the ban across jurisdictions as its nearly universal success in implementation. When Ireland banned smoking in enclosed spaces in 2004, I would have been prepared to bet large amounts of money that the ban would be universally ignored (Irish citizens have historically had a flexible attitude to the interpretation of legal rules that don’t suit them). In particular, I would have predicted that the ban would never work in pubs. But it did – pretty well instantaneously as best as I could tell. If it hadn’t been for the Irish example, I would have bet even larger amounts that the ban would never have taken off in Italy (where storeowners are legally obliged to give you a receipt when you buy something, to make it more difficult for them to fiddle taxes, and where the general attitude to large swathes of civil and criminal law seems best characterized as a kind of amiable contempt). But again, it appears to have worked.

I haven’t seen any research on this (if someone knows of any, let me know in comments), but my best guess in the absence of good evidence would be that the success of the ban reflected instabilities in previously existing informal norms about where people could or could not smoke. Laws that work against prevailing social norms face an uphill battle in implementation – unless people come to a general belief that non-compliers are highly likely to be sanctioned by the public authorities, they are likely to carry on doing what they always do. Hence, for example, the continued failure of the RIAA etc to stop file-sharing – file-sharers who both (a) think that there is nothing wrong with swapping music and movies, and (b) that the chance that they are going to be punished is low, are going to go on sharing files (current US law tries to counterbalance this problem by applying relatively draconian penalties to the few file sharers who are caught, but this strategy carries its own problems). Laws that broadly fit with prevailing informal norms, will, obviously, have few implementation problems.

But what we may have seen (if my guess is right) with smoking bans is an unusual case in which prevailing norms (that Irish people can smoke in pubs to their hearts’ content, and that others will just have to put up with it) were much more fragile than they appeared to be, and that the change in law made it easier for those disadvantaged by the prevailing norms to challenge smokers and to shame them into stopping smoking in certain places, hence creating a new set of robust norms. I’ve no evidence beyond anecdote and personal observations to support this claim – but I do think that it is hard to imagine that norm fragility isn’t involved somewhere along the causal chain, given that state enforcement capacities are obviously insufficient to push something like this through.



lemmy caution 06.12.09 at 6:27 pm


Erik 06.12.09 at 6:53 pm

An interesting (and perhaps surprising) partial exception is the Netherlands, which was not only very late in instituting a smoking ban but it has also caused a real backlash and civil disobedience. It now seems that the cabinet has to backtrack a bit and allow smoking in bars operated without employees (i.e. only by the owner(s)).


Doctor Science 06.12.09 at 7:24 pm

The Irish case is very interesting, and not what I would have expected, either.

I think one reason for the norm fragility on this issue is a peculiarity of the nervous system. Speaking as a lifetime non-smoker, one of the things that annoys me most is the smell. Smell is the most adaptation-prone of the senses: that is, we “get used” to smells more quickly and thoroughly than for other types of stimuli. The consequences for smoking are:

a) smokers have no idea what it smells like, none.

b) as the number of smokers goes down, the smoke from the remaining ones is *more* annoying and obvious to non-smokers, because we’re no longer adapted to moving through a constant blue-gray fog.

In the 60s and 70s, everyone smoked in eating/drinking places all the time, it was just part of how they were. By the 90s, it was much less common, and I’d feel free to leave a place if it was too smoky. Now, I can tell if my husband has talked to a smoker, by the smell clinging to his clothes; I’ve returned books to the library, because the previous borrower had smoked while reading them and the smell wafting up from the pags was repulsive.

So I think it’s partly that a lot of people were looking for an excuse to ask people to stop smoking, but also that the fewer smokers there are in the population the more stinky they seem.


LizardBreath 06.12.09 at 7:34 pm

This is really true. My parents both smoked, and while I don’t, I actually like the smell. But like it or not, the smell is very, very noticeable now that it’s rare. I can walk by someone outdoors who’s not currently smoking and get a strong whiff of tobacco smoke from them.

Back in the 80s I would have thought of anyone who claimed to be seriously bothered by someone else’s smoking as unreasonably fussy, but now, when fewer people smoke, it seems very reasonable.


Hidari 06.12.09 at 7:38 pm

‘An interesting (and perhaps surprising) partial exception is the Netherlands, which was not only very late in instituting a smoking ban but it has also caused a real backlash and civil disobedience. It now seems that the cabinet has to backtrack a bit and allow smoking in bars operated without employees (i.e. only by the owner(s)).’

Obviously in the Netherlands the situation is complicated by the stoner ‘coffee shops’.

In Germany, though, the smoking ban seems to have been a wash out, or at least it was when i was there.,1518,529305,00.html


lemuel pitkin 06.12.09 at 7:46 pm

Some less widely-known facts about the NYC smoking ban:

1. It was superseded almost immediately by an even stricter statewide ban signed by Republican Gov. George Pataki. For obvious reasons the smoking ban gets associated with the technocratic Bloomberg in stories like this, but as a practical matter the city law was irrelevant — it was in force for less than four months.

2. The smoking ban was only one of the anti-smoking policies adopted by the Bloomberg administration. The other three legs of the stool were a big hike in cigarette taxes; free provision, via the city’s 311 line, of nicotine patches and other smoking cessation assistance to anyone in the city who requested it; and a very aggressive anti-smoking advertising campaign. It’s not clear which of these was most responsible, but overall…

3. … it worked. NYC smoking rates have declined sharply since 2002, when the anti-smoking campaign began (the public-places ban went into effect in early 2003.) After being flat for the preceding decade at around 21.5%, smoking rates have now fallen below 16% for the first time in at least 50 years.


eric 06.12.09 at 7:54 pm

The anti-smoking tide has even reached North Carolina — the top tobacco-producing state in the US — where the legislature just passed a bill to ban smoking in offices, restaurants & bars. First we go for Obama; now we go smoke-free. Those rumblings I hear are old Jesse Helms rolling in his grave.


LizardBreath 06.12.09 at 7:57 pm

a very aggressive anti-smoking advertising campaign.

Very aggressive, to the point that I hide my head under sofa cushions rather than watch the TV spots. And I’m not usually exaggeratedly squeamish.


Matt 06.12.09 at 8:07 pm

a very aggressive anti-smoking advertising campaign.

I wonder how effective some of these are. The only ones I see now (on the subway- not having TV I don’t see the commercials) have a woman who had to have some fingers partially amputated, supposedly due to smoking related problems. That’s obviously bad. But almost no one has that problem- it’s really rare. So, I suspect that most people who see it know very well it almost never happens, and so suspect (rightly!) that it’s unlikely to happen to them. I can’t help but wonder if it would be better to have commercials with people telling smokers that they stink.


lemuel pitkin 06.12.09 at 8:26 pm

I wonder how effective some of these are.

Hard to say. But we do know that the anti-smoking package as a whole has been very effective. And some substantial fraction of its effectiveness is presumably due to the ads and/or free smoking cessation assistance, since the other two components — public-place bans and higher taxes — exist in lots of other places where smoking has declined much less than in NYC.

Of course evaluating this stuff is harder because of the multiplier effect from changing norms. I lived in NYC and quit smoking during the mid-2000s, not because of any anti-smoking measures (maybe the tax a little) but because once few enough other people in my circle smoked, it no longer felt socially acceptable. Presumably there was still an effect of policy there, but at one remove.


Mrs Tilton 06.12.09 at 8:46 pm

The Netherlands? In Germany, too, the smoking ban is full of holes, and resisted to an extent. Odd that: who’d have expected the Irish and Italians (and even French) to be more observant of that sort of thing than the fastidious müsli-chomping renewable-energy loving Teutons?

Quit myself a few years ago (in Italy, as it happens). Being around smoking people as such doesn’t bother me, really, but I am always amazed to discover the next day how badly my clothes stink of it if I’d been in a smoky place the night before. The Doctor @3 is right, smokers literally do not perceive this.

In New York, the bars along Second Avenue built great broad sills below their front windows to accommodate smokers. “Can’t smoke in the bar!” “I’m not in the bar.” “Can’t take your beer outside the bar!” “My beer’s still in the bar.”

I wonder whether the cops who hang out at Farrell’s in Brooklyn still smoke inside the place. Never went in, but I’d often see the off-duty guys standing around on the sidewalk on fine summer afternoons with huge styrofoam go-cups in their hands. Big poster in the window with an NYPD symbol, warning that it is unlawful to take alcohol out of the premises. A cynical joke, of course; quis custodiet and all that. If they’re as good about obeying the smoking ban as they are the licencing laws, I imagine one can still hack a path to the bar with a machete.


andrew 06.12.09 at 9:11 pm

My limited, anecdotal experience as a Californian who spent some time on the East Coast and in Europe during the period between the California smoking ban and the later bans elsewhere, is that some smokers don’t notice the smell but that many do–and that while the ones that notice generally prefer to keep smoking, they don’t like the smoke getting everywhere. This would come up when people heard about the California ban and they’d say that it would be nice not to come home from a bar and have their clothing still smell like smoke the next day. And I think I’ve heard more smokers say they preferred people, including themselves, to smoke outside or at least at the window than to smoke indoors.

Additional observation: many smokers didn’t sit in the smoking car on trains. They’d get up, go to the car, have a smoke, and go back to the non-smoking section. Whether they outnumbered the people who stayed in the smoking car all the time, I don’t know, but there were clearly many people who didn’t like to be around smoke when they weren’t producing it.


LizardBreath 06.12.09 at 9:21 pm

I wonder how much of a public health effect simply reducing the number of places you can smoke has, in terms of turning heavy smokers into light smokers? My parents were both three-pack a day smokers when I was a kid, and there were very few places they couldn’t smoke. (My mother tells the story of giving birth to me in the early 70’s, and shortly after I was born, shambling out to the nurses’ station to bum a smoke from a nurse.)

My sister smokes, but she’s a doctor, and simply isn’t allowed to light up anywhere in the hospitals where she works — she’d probably be as heavy a smoker as my parents were if allowed, but I doubt she has time to smoke a pack a day.


Matt 06.12.09 at 9:26 pm

My sister smokes, but she’s a doctor, and simply isn’t allowed to light up anywhere in the hospitals where she works

At the large hospital complex where my mother works people are now not allowed to smoke anywhere on the grounds, even outside. At there is a big parking lot around most of the building it’s pretty hard to get off the grounds to smoke during one’s working hours. This has pretty much made it so that people who need to smoke within a 4 hour period can’t work there (you could leave for lunch, I guess.)


Henri Vieuxtemps 06.12.09 at 9:27 pm

I could be wrong, but somehow I’m sure that Italians still smoke in restaurants, in that back room for special customers.


Bloix 06.12.09 at 9:32 pm

As for federalism, it cuts both ways. For example, you’d never get a ban of fox-hunting in the US. The New Yorkers who would vote for it have no say in what the gentlefolk of Virginia are permitted to do on the weekend.


LizardBreath 06.12.09 at 9:32 pm

This has pretty much made it so that people who need to smoke within a 4 hour period can’t work there

In practice, I think it ends up making it that that people who used to not be able to go four hours without a cigarette turn into lighter smokers who can wait for the end of the day.

I wonder if there’s any public health research on that — either on whether people are lighter smokers in jurisdictions where smoking restrictions are more common, or on whether there’s a measurable health benefit to people who still smoke from being lighter smokers.


Kenny Easwaran 06.12.09 at 9:47 pm

Speaking of changing norms, I was recently at a conference in Michigan, where smoking in bars is apparently still legal. One of my friends who was with me was a smoker, and was surprised to see someone smoking indoors, but still felt the need to step outside when he wanted a smoke – as he put it “it would feel like pissing on the table to smoke inside, even though it’s allowed”.


lemuel pitkin 06.12.09 at 9:51 pm

I wonder if there’s any public health research on that—either on whether people are lighter smokers in jurisdictions where smoking restrictions are more common

In 2002, combined New York city and state taxes on cigarettes increased by $3 a pack, and the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants went into effect in March 2003. In the following year, the number of smokers dropped by about 10% but the number of packs sold in the city dropped by 50%. Some of the difference was obviously a shift to buying cigarettes outside of the city, but as far as survey evidence can be trusted, it appears that the larger part of the gap is explained by smokers reducing their consumption.


virgil xenophon 06.12.09 at 11:53 pm

Both of my parents were smokers, and growing up in the 50s it seemed EVERYONE smoked. My worst memories are of cold winter days in long car rides with both parents smoking. The choice was intolerable levels of smoke or opening a window part-way and freezing to death in the back for a while–especially as car heaters in those days were primative and one’s feet always remained frozen in back–then closing for warmth and then repete. TOTAL MISERY. Probably because of my parents I grew up as a non-smoker which I remain to this day. And neither my wife nor my son smokes. The generational changes in attitudes about the habit is remarkable. And everyone here is correct–it is really noticable when one spends time in a bar, etc., where everyone smokes and once home the smell in one’s clothes, hair, etc., is quite noticable.

Still and all, the libertarian aspects of some of this are troubling–especially bans in open public places and private residential apts as in some jurisdictions in Cali. Also troubling is the predicate est. for paving the way for the “Soup Nazis,” the beginnings of which we see in NYC with trans-fats. There is no logical end to this slippery slope except via public revolt at the ballot box–and no end of do-gooder un-elected authoritian bureaucrats only too willing to exercise power over other people’s lives in order to advance THEIR vision of Nirvana. This is especially troubling as the source of much regulation in this area is done via law-suits against “twilight zone” multi-jurisdictional (often multi-state) agencies with fuzzy political/legal boundaries to force courts to make people obey bureaucraticly-developed regulations often made far exceeding the original intent of enabling legislation and to enforce limitations on the pvt sector far in excess of those an elected politician exposed to the voting public might advance.


john b 06.13.09 at 12:48 am

@18 I found that in Andorra last year (I think it’s the only European ski destination where smoking is still allowed) – I’m a “none til after 4 beers then chain it” smoker, and couldn’t deal with smoking on dance floors, at the bar, etc at all.

@20 is the “private residential apartments” ban landlords’ choice or county ordinance? if the latter I agree it’s pretty foul from a freedom perspective – if you analogise smoking in public to pissing in public, which isn’t entirely unfair, then banning weirdos-who-like-that-sort-of-thing from pissing in their own living rooms with the curtains drawn is definitely beyond reasonable.


Zora 06.13.09 at 9:39 am

I grew up with two smokers and developed mild asthma. Usually doesn’t bother me — unless I’m around tobacco smoke. At which time my nose swells shut and I start wheezing.

I’m one of the people for whom the non-smoking laws were written.


Katherine 06.13.09 at 9:48 am

The ban is holding pretty fast in the UK too, and there was a lot of resistance to it at the time it was coming in. I tend to agree with Henry on this – it was entirely the social norm that smokers would be smoking in pubs and non-smokers just had to put up with it. The ban switched the power balance, as it were, to the non-smokers. As someone who was a (social) smoker before the ban but who gave up around the time the ban came in, this worked out rather well for me.

Also, the smoking ban has made pubs and restaurants much much more family friendly, which I think has shifted a lot of pubs towards provision for families. I know that I can happily take my toddler into a decent looking pub during the day, which I certainly wouldn’t have done if I’d had her before the ban.


novakant 06.13.09 at 9:51 am

I agree on the smell being one of the driving factors of the anti-smoking campaign, it explains much of the visceral reaction to smoke and smokers, that cannot be justified on solely rational grounds. If people argued wholly rationally, they would need to ban alcohol and junk food as well, but these will be with us forever. Yet, as a smoker I can say that I am not ignorant of to the smell at all. Also, the funny thing is that now after the ban, the smell of sweat and beer is much more noticeable.


Zamfir 06.13.09 at 9:56 am

Hidaris says: “Obviously in the Netherlands the situation is complicated by the stoner ‘coffee shops’.”

This caused actually no complication at all. Coffee shops have to be very careful with the law, so they now only allow the smoking of pure cannabis inside. Weird, but true.

The real problem are small “second living room” type of bars with customers going back decades. Here the people feel forced out of a place that is almost a part of themselves, and they really hate it.


Henri Vieuxtemps 06.13.09 at 9:58 am

Smell of beer I don’t mind, but they certainly should ban excessive use of perfume.


Hidari 06.13.09 at 11:44 am

‘This caused actually no complication at all. Coffee shops have to be very careful with the law, so they now only allow the smoking of pure cannabis inside. Weird, but true.’

According to Wikipedia there is also the use of seperate smoking rooms where more ‘traditional’ joints can be smoked.

Does anyone know what the situation is in Canada where, (and not many people know this,folks) Amsterdam style coffee shops are also tolerated? (Although in a BYOJ (Bring your own joints)) stylee?


Martin Wisse 06.13.09 at 11:51 am

Of course, determining which rollup is pure cannabis and which is contaminated with tobacco is not easy. Our local neighbourhood coffee shop now has a smoke room where the staff can’t serve you, or so I’m told.


sg 06.13.09 at 11:53 am

Two negative consequences of the ban in England are that a) now in night-clubs you smell the people rather than the cigarettes, which really isn’t nice and b) lots and lots of drunk people infest the pavements outside pubs, giving them a very nasty air.

In Australia and Japan a) hasn’t happened because the weather there necessitates air-conditioning. But in the UK air-con is not used very much. So the air gets staler and staler, and particularly in night-clubs by 3am it can be nasty – the smell of dirty feet and BO on the dance floor can be pretty unpleasant (not to mention the stench of spilled alcohol). It’s better than cigarette smoke, but it does tend to remind one of how filthy people actually are …

I’m pretty sure that pubs in the UK have benefitted from the smoking ban because now they can fit in MORE people, not less – they pack the non-smokers inside and then use the pavements, where before the ban they didn’t. I’m willing to bet that casual violence has increased, because pushing your way through a crowd of drunk people is liable to cause trouble.


Anthony 06.13.09 at 1:16 pm

#21 – the ordinance referred to allows landlords to ban smoking in common areas; I don’t think landlords are allowed to ban smoking inside anywhere, but they may be free to refuse to rent to smokers.

California’s smoking ban in bars, restaurants, etc., is a labor law, for the protection of employees; thus leaving a loophole: a bar with no employees but the owner may choose to allow smoking. In practice, that means no urban or suburban bar would; very few are that small. I suppose one could put together an employee-owned co-op bar where all the employee-owners smoked, and advertise as a smoke-friendly bar, but I don’t think it’s happened.

Compliance with the smoking ban was pretty high, with some pockets of holdouts – some bars in San Francisco, popular with cops, did not comply for quite a while.

There’s a collective-action problem which a smoking ban solves – most bar and restaurant owners would prefer to not allow smoking, but in the absence of a ban, they more strongly prefer to not lose those customers to their competition. (It’s more than the 25% who smoke – it’s their non-smoking dates/spouses/friends, too.) When the law enforces the ban on all similar establishments, the restaurant owners don’t lose customers to their competition, only to people choosing to stay home. After the ban was enacted in California, there was a noticeable decline in customers at bars, but not at restaurants.

Airlines had a similar collective-action problem – it’s cheaper to run non-smoking flights, because the ventilation system is power-hungry and a non-smoking flight requires 3 air changes per hour instead of 6 (plus reduced cleanup costs). No airline wanted to lose smoking customers, and deciding to all ban smoking on their own would be illegal collusion. Lobbying the government for an industry-wide ban benefitted the airlines.


Bob 06.13.09 at 1:16 pm

Here in Chicago, the ban is a joke in many small neighborhood bars. During the warm weather, bars that comply are being blamed for problems down the street if a smoking patrons runs inside to use the house phone to report the problem, which has nothing to do with the bar. The bars that ignore the ban are having no problems as patrons are safely inside, not getting involved with problems down the street. During the winter, bar owners were more concerned about the immediate problem of frostbite as smokers removed gloves to smoke in brutally subzero wind chills. Unlike rural bars, patrons don’t have a heated car in the parking lot in local neighborhood bars. Al Capone is laughing in his grave.


Doctor Science 06.13.09 at 4:56 pm

A friend in NZ, where the ban on bar/restaurant smoking went up in 2005, says that bar staff often comment on the problem that now they can smell their customers, some of whom smell a *lot*.

I wonder how much of an effect this will have on perfume/cologne sales, and which direction. Will people use less, now that their noses aren’t as likely to be overwhelmed by cig smoke? Or will they use more, as they now become aware of body smells they didn’t notice before?


mollymooly 06.13.09 at 5:43 pm

Some charmingly dilapidated Irish pubs had plushly upholstered seating, flock wallpaper, etc. With the smoking ban, they discovered how well some such fabrics retain BO. Cue wholesale refurbishment.


CycloneHog 06.13.09 at 5:50 pm

Smoking bans are a blessing for all of us non-smokers who can now enjoy a meal without having the table next to us blowing cig. smoke in our face. Smoking bans, high taxes…what legislation is next to snuff out the smoking habit? I hope the FDA tightens the grip on Big Tobacco even more…but as this report indicates, that might not be the case.


Charles Drumm 06.13.09 at 9:04 pm

I am not in favor of smoking bans. They ar a throwback to Prohibition. The owner of a business should have sole discretion of what level of accommodation, if any, he wishes to offer. Patrons should take their business where they feel comfortable. The Government should be totally removed from the arena. You are surprised at the compleance. So am I. We have a generation of people who have grown up in an atmosphere where tobacco bashing is popular. The Government role has significantly increased, and perhaps this generation has not given thought to that role. The populous believe what they are told. It doesn’t male any difference if the argument presented undergoes little or no scrutiny. Smoking Bans will undoubtedly lead to a much bigger role for Government.


jacob 06.13.09 at 10:17 pm

Re Anthony @30: My memory from several years ago is that the Massachusetts ban similarly exempted businesses where there were no employees. Some enterprising owner issued stock certificates to all his employees, thus making them minority owners and exempt. I can’t remember whether this was a successful dodge; I doubt it. But if these sorts of dodges encourage the growth of real worker-owned coops–one in which workers can then chose whether to ban smoking or not–I see that as a tremendous side benefit.

Also in Boston (and elsewhere, as I recall) there were complaints from people who lived above or beside bars that forcing smokers out onto the street created more noise for them, but to my mind this seems like a small price to pay for a bar where I don’t smell like an ashtray at the end of the night.


EpicureanQuaker 06.13.09 at 10:28 pm

Evoking libertarianism to defend most things, while often self-serving and in bad faith, can at least be countenanced. But really, when you’re talking about noise or smoke, you really need to STFU. Until y’all start exercising your habits in mobile soundproof bathyspheres, you really don’t have an argument.

@Charles Drumm: You’re the one imposing your will upon other patrons with your smoking – attempting to play the victim in your little hyper-greivanced drama just makes you a dick.

tl;dr: Your right to kneecap your respiratory system ends where my alveoli begin.


virgil xenophon 06.14.09 at 4:14 am

It was “crazy” old King George III himself, wasn’t it, who considered smoking a filthy habit and the idea of putting a burning weed in one’s mouth an insane concept to boot?
No small irony there. “Crazy” King George was perhaps more the “crazy fox” than history gives him credit for. In any event, history has certainly proven him right on this particular score.


Katherine 06.14.09 at 10:15 am

They ar a throwback to Prohibition.

That might be a valid comparison if smoking had been banned. However, it has not. Smoking in certain places has been banned. Big difference.


novakant 06.14.09 at 11:00 am

the smoking ban has made pubs and restaurants much much more family friendly, which I think has shifted a lot of pubs towards provision for families.

Yeah, but a lot of young people and singles find this whole family friendly pub business incredibly boring and annoying. I’m fine with family friendly pubs, as long as I don’t have to go there, but I don’t like the general expectation that the majority or all of them should provide a comfortable environment for families.

I know that I can happily take my toddler into a decent looking pub during the day, which I certainly wouldn’t have done if I’d had her before the ban.

What if I don’t like toddlers running around in pubs screaming (not every toddler does that of course, but one is enough to ruin a perfectly peaceful afternoon in a pub)? Again, I don’t have anything against places suitable for families, but whatever happened to diversity? There are thousands of places in London I would never set a foot into, but I let people do their thing in those and simply go someplace else.


Tim Wilkinson 06.14.09 at 2:35 pm

I don’t think the seething resentment among smokers has been properly expressed.
So, an – ironically, quite unphlegmatic – smoker rants:


* it is illiberal victimisation, or if you must, discrimination against the addicted

* it has emboldened the likes of EpicureanQuaker @37 to go round ostentatiously projecting their frightful dickishness onto others, armed only with transparently invalid arguments. Your right to prevent me enjoying a cigarette ends where your ability to fuck off out of the pub – or preferably not even come in – begins.

* they could have had non-smoking bars before – but they didn’t because so many ‘patrons’ wanted to smoke and non-smokers weren’t that bothered/didn’t drink in bars so much (if it’s actually not that, but some otherwise insoluble ‘co-ordination problem’, I’m a censorious non-smoking busybody)

* they could also have mandatory smoke-free areas in restaurants instead of putting non-smoking signs on a few apparently randomly selected tables (likewise in pubs)

* the ban vis-a-vis pubs disproportionately affects working classes and other ‘sad’ (read: risible) bastards like me for whom a fag-and-a-pint (US:smoke and a beer) is one of life’s major pleasures. This point was actually canvassed by some of those in the Labour party who had some vestige of connection with the working class, and they even considered exempting pubs which don’t serve food – i.e. pubs where the proles go every night to drown their sorrows. But that didn’t wash with Tony and his prissy little coterie. Anyway, it would have raised questions about the supposed basis of the legislation:

* it’s thinly disguised as a workers’ rights issue (that workers didn’t seem that concerned by) – as though there aren’t enough smokers to take the jobs, and as though there aren’t – even on the most ludicrous of passive smoking ‘statistics’ – about 3,000 more dangerous types of work, many of which are actually significantly dangerous and could even be regulated properly so as to reduce the death toll without significantly impacting on the industries concerned. For example, basic safety procedures on oil rigs could be properly monitored and enforced, minor stuff like that.

* pubs are shutting down left right and centre because of it – or turning into pub-themed restaurants for people who think that unfashionable food doesn’t taste good any more and that if it is possible, with sufficiently cultivated faculties, to discern that one beer/food/wine is slightly more pleasant than another, it must be (a) worth paying significantly more for (b) the kind of thing that everyone should be interested in and [c) clever. And their repellent children. Staying outside with lemonade and a packet of cheese n onion was good enough for me.


* it’s the law

* you can’t get away with it: Unlike a lot of other things, where you can practice the kind of robust civil disobedience that the sanctimonious likes of John Rawls wouldn’t recognise (i.e. just do it anyway without feeling guilty, and yes – try not to get locked up for it), smoking is, as many people have pointed out, instantly detectable and very obvious. This is also well-known to anyone who has tried secretive smoking (except G Paltrow’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums)

* the proprietor faces criminal liability for permitting it, and in the kind of place where anyone might be impolite enough to try lighting up, there tends to be a small troop of beetle-browed brutes in bomber jackets on the door just itching to hear the squeals of an immobilised ‘criminal’ with a dislocated thumb.

* there are no ashtrays

* a huge number of pubs have installed surreal outdoor ‘virtual saloons’, sometimes with near-sealed canvas roofs (which I think are actually still technically ‘enclosed’, but that’s not enforced), and almost always with hideously wasteful outdoor heaters, on all evening every evening, and all day for about 6 months of the year – it’s worth it to attract the smoking crowd, you see.

* people are made to feel disproportionately guilty about smoking, partly on the back of ludicrously exaggerated ‘findings’ on passive smoking, but also shock adverts and the sanctimonious stylings of health fascists. You get big full colour pictures of huge red neck tumours, blackened lungs etc on every fag packet. I assume they’ll soon be depicting prolapsed rectums on weightlifting equipment, seived enema effluent on packs of red meat, mangled corpses and asthmatic bronchioles incorporated into the paintwork of Mercs, shrunken brains and scarred livers on bottles of fine claret, etc.

* it was brought in in the middle of summer to minimise any protest

* we are also not organised or well-connected enough or have free time or the pushy middle-class attitude to make a fuss/effectively protest anyway

* it’s not quite true that it’s enforced everywhere – there are definitely pockets of resistance among the stout yeomanry (ASBOed underclass). St Mary’s Hospital in Portsmouth has a de facto smoking area – which happens, much to the muted chagrin of some non-smokers, to be in a reasonably pleasant bit with benches – because not even some stinking back alley is designated for the poor bastards to smoke in. Oh yeah, and prisons are exempt I believe, but last I heard not psychiatric units which I happen to know are populated almost exclusively with heavy smokers – so that’s a nice touch

* shock though it may be, smokers don’t want to blow smoke in non-smoker’s faces – hence my (no doubt reciprocated) annoyance at being seated next to a non-smoking table on the rare occasions I used to go to a restaurant. Now you have to assume everyone is a non-smoker (i.e. for any person, you have to assume they are a non-smoker) so you are even less likely defiantly to light up than you would if you were sure no-one else actually minded.

* MPs are still allowed to smoke in the House of Commons bar (or were last I checked)

* it’s cheaper to stay at home with a twelve-pack of strong lager and blow smoke over your kids anyway

Hmm, think I might be getting a bit tetchy. Better pick up my jacket and mobile phone, put a beermat over the top of my pint and a newspaper on my seat and sidle my way downstairs, along the alleyway and down to the busy street to obstruct and blow smoke on pedestrians…yes, yes, is it worth it, etc? – Well that’s no longer relevant because giving up would now be giving in.


Phil 06.14.09 at 6:24 pm

Italy is interesting because there was already an existing law restricting smoking in certain places. I think the original law was created in the 70s and bars had to be either non-smoking or provide a non-smoking area. This was commonly ignored with bars either not providing a non-smoking are or letting people smoke there anyway. Then somehow the new law seems to have worked.

It seems to me when the first law came in the norm for accepting people to smoke where they want was stable so had no great effect and the norm became to ignore the law. The norms about accepting changed but weren’t enforced until the stronger law came in.

‘…the change in law made it easier for those disadvantaged by the prevailing norms to challenge smokers and to shame them into stopping smoking in certain places, hence creating a new set of robust norms.’

Also I don’t know if the above quote is right, it’s probably more that if a smoker were to be challenged they would be in the wrong so it is easier to obey the law in the first place.


Phil 06.14.09 at 7:16 pm

Just to point out I’m not the other Phil, who often comments here.


Z 06.15.09 at 5:07 am

Italy is interesting because there was already an existing law restricting smoking in certain places. I think the original law was created in the 70s and bars had to be either non-smoking or provide a non-smoking area. This was commonly ignored with bars either not providing a non-smoking are or letting people smoke there anyway. Then somehow the new law seems to have worked.

True word for word about france as well: there existed a law restricting smoking, it wasn’t enforced at all, suddenly the law banned smoking in bars, and magically it worked perfectly. I don’t understand it either.


Liz 06.15.09 at 5:43 am

The smoking ban succeeded here in Victoria for several reasons-the petitions with thousands of signatures protesting it were literally thrown in the garbage ,and “smoke police” were hired to patrol bars and restaurants to ensure compliance, with $500 fines for anyone caught smoking.One individual went so far as to follow a woman home because she would’t give her name. Some pubs that served as rallying points for the protests had their licenses removed. Lots of businesses went under due to the ban.Here it had nothing to do with smell, and everything to do with strong-arm tactics.


sg 06.15.09 at 6:49 am

That’s a cute rant Tim. Do you really think non-smokers never minded? If so you’re stupendously ignorant as well as grumpy.


Chris 06.15.09 at 10:12 am

Quick counter-example:

In the Swiss French-speaking areas, there was a law banning smoking a year or so ago. I don’t remember when it started because there was no change in people’s smoking, and the only reason I think there is no law now is I seem to remember seeing something in the newspaper a while back. But if France can ban it, I imagine the new law banning smoking in September may work this time… but who knows.


Tim Wilkinson 06.15.09 at 12:06 pm

No I don’t think I’m stupendously ignorant. Just playing smoker’s advocate – and note I said: non-smokers weren’t that bothered/didn’t drink in bars so much. I am slightly uncomfortable with impliedly using this kind of ‘revealed preference’ market approach, but I also think the description of the ‘coordination problem’ invoved was a bit thin. But then in such a case one should – of course – give some substantive criticism. Ranter’s licence?

And I am all in favour of not upsetting non-smokers, but one point I gestured at was that this ban was not about that, but a heavy-handed attempt to make people give up. Better ventilation etc. would have achieved the former (though not too much, or not everywhere – as part of the pleasure comes from lazily swirling blue tendrils infused with autumn sun against the cool still gloom of an oaken interior and all that. But in that case there shouldn’t really be anyone else around except the discreetly pottering – and heavy-smoking – barperson, just a bright pint, a newspaper and nothing to do til teatime…)

BTW I would apologise to those who might fall under (part of) my description of pub-restaurant goers (and actually read that far) as that was both irrelevant and unnecessarily vitrioloic – and not even actually what I think about people who quite reasonably want to eat pleasant food in pleasant surrroundings. Or their children. In more sober moments I share Novakant’s well and temperately expressed opinion on those.


JoB 06.15.09 at 12:15 pm

Tim, of course these are moves to make us give up. That’s fair enough – really. The problem is that they want us to give up in order for us to have extremely lengthy sterile boring lifes. That, my opinion, is not fair enough. Nicotine is not personality-changing. Neither taking it nor, for that matter, leaving it should be such a big societal deal.


Tim Wilkinson 06.15.09 at 12:53 pm

JoB @48 agree for the most part. But not all moves to make us give up are ‘fair enough’. Paternalism to me poses at least a prima facie problem, and in any case the transitional effects in getting from here to there have to be considered. This sort of cold turkey zero-tolerance approach is not the way to go.

As an aside, it reminds me of one of the issues in the Thatcherite sack-the-miners-en-masse-and-let-the-market-sort-it-out style of privatisation project that is still rolling on. Lots of ordinary people just don’t get the brave new word of private dental insurance, share dealing etc that’s such second nature to the upper- and middle- middle classes. They have spent their whole life in a world in which you smoke in the pub, pay your taxes, try and put something aside in National Savings and rely on the NHS. There were no lessons in any of this stuff, no announcement that you had better sit down with an accountant and revolutionise the way you run your life, just an almost Malthusian calculation that the end result would be a nice neoclassical equilibrium (though of course with reams of footnotes about all the reasons why the equilibrium won’t be discernable/isn’t quite to be taken literally.)


Tim Wilkinson 06.15.09 at 1:12 pm

## 44,45 (re partial ban ignored, complete ban effective)

I suppose the anti-smoking climate of opinion has changed a lot since the 70s when the modus vivendi (et mori, yeah yeah) you describe presumably bedded in, but this was also a new and determined attempt by legislators (‘and this time we mean it!’).

But probably important is the point ejaculated above @ 41 – that you can’t get away with it… smoking is, as many people have pointed out, instantly detectable and very obvious. This is also well-known to anyone who has tried secretive smoking. In a mixed smoking/non smoking environment that doesn’t apply.


Panu Poutvaara 06.15.09 at 2:36 pm

There is some research on smoking and social norms. My joint paper Smoking and Social Interaction (Journal of Health Economics, 2008, 27 (6), 1503–1515) studies the social interaction of non-smokers and smokers, incorporating insights from social psychology and experimental economics into an economic model. Overall, smoking is unduly often accepted when accommodating smoking is the social norm. The introduction of smoking and non-smoking areas does not overcome this specific inefficiency, which may provide an efficiency justification for smoking plans in bars and restaurants. For those not having access to the journal, an earlier version of the paper is available at


sg 06.15.09 at 4:51 pm

But Tim, we were that bothered, and smokers knew it, they just knew they could get away with smoking because there was nothing we could do about it. Most smokers have just accepted it’s a fair cop and got on with their lives. But the militant smokers are now trying to pretend that all we had to do back in the day was ask nicely and you would have all smoked outside, which is just patently not true.

This may be hard for you to believe, but when one doesn’t smoke one tends to think of it as quite a disgusting habit. It’s the sore eyes, the sneezing and the disgusting stench which tend to make one think this way. What the anti-smoking-ban mob are suggesting, really, is the atmospheric equivalent of 40% of the population being forced to have chilli rubbed in their eyes just so they can hang out with their mates in a public drinking establishment. Not smoking, on the other hand, is not disgusting at all. Since smokers couldn’t be bothered politely smoking outside, once those of us who don’t smoke got a decent majority, we made you. If it bothers you, find a habit that isn’t so disgusting that the majority of the population find it intolerable – chewing gum, for example.


JoB 06.15.09 at 4:54 pm

Tim, no, not all moves, just a number of moves, like this one. There seems to be paternalism is bad in your first paragraph and maternalism is good in your second. Personally, I don’t like the pair of them. The problem with Thatcher and with smoking is not the absence of pre-warning, I am sure. The problem is that the former was wrong and the second is thought to be wrong (on a democratically formed opinion which I democratically oppose a.o. because of this completely Malthusian calculation: if nobody dies anymore then everybody will suffer).


Tim Wilkinson 06.15.09 at 5:25 pm

JoB @52 – not the problem; a problem.
sg @51 – ?


Alex Higgins 06.15.09 at 5:46 pm

A slight tangent – it may be of interest to some to know that one of the key figures in historical libertarianism, John Stuart Mill, was a fervant anti-tobacco campaigner.

As an MP he voted for the first legislation in Britain to create smoke-free carriages on trains.

I’m surprised Mill’s views on the subject haven’t come up more often in the debate over the years.


Phil 06.15.09 at 6:56 pm

‘But probably important is the point ejaculated above @ 41 – that you can’t get away with it… smoking is, as many people have pointed out, instantly detectable and very obvious. This is also well-known to anyone who has tried secretive smoking. In a mixed smoking/non smoking environment that doesn’t apply.’

It does apply, some bars did put some effort into applying the rule, though most didn’t, and others provided no non-smoking section and allowed smoking anyway. The rule could have been enforced more strongly if there was the will to do so.

The other law change that occurred when I was in Italy was that apparently the EU banned bowls of loose sugar in bars. Overnight they were replaced with bowls of sachets of sugar, this suggests the obviousness of breaking rule does make a difference. I suppose it is difficult for anyone living in a foreign country to work out which laws it is generally accepted can be broken, in what ways, and by how much.


JoB 06.15.09 at 7:32 pm

Tim, no, not even an italicized problem. Even more annoying then getting banned is an endless flow of warnings. I’d happily trade a smoking ban for a ban on pre-warnings, as if we’re all little children in need of CAPITAL LETTERS reminding us of what has been in the news for the past decades. Or, alternatively, a warning to go with the warnings: ‘if it is for sale than this warning may legally be neglected. You are free to make up your own mind.’


Tim Wilkinson 06.15.09 at 9:15 pm

JoB @56 Yes – I missed the fact that you referred to absence of pre-warnings, rather than what I mentioned which is failure to mitigate the impacts of a transition (regardless of whether the end is for the better).

I can cope with warnings but the pictures are just wretched – AOT, attempting to bypass the conscious rational faculties altogether in a way I find pretty creepy.


roy belmont 06.15.09 at 10:20 pm

In the 60s and 70s, everyone smoked in eating/drinking places all the time, it was just part of how they were. By the 90s, it was much less common
Me and Virgil X share a chunk of the timeline that predates this “just part of how they were” lacuna.
Non-smoking adults were so anomalous in my early youth that it was a ponder, and one would naturally want to ask them why not. Adults were as known by the brands of their cigarettes as by their names.
No one here, or virtually anywhere now for that matter seems to think it of much import to wonder how exactly it came to be the case that something so unnatural and unhealthy was near universally adopted in less than a century.
Well I’ll tell you what I think, I think it was done through the same mechanisms that undid it.
Brainwash subliminal seduction charismatic example and pretty constant social reinforcement. Going in as well as coming out. There’s unsubstantiated rumor-level indications that opiates were used periodically as adulterants in the early days of tobacco as mass-produced cigarettes, and documented tales of college BMOC’s hired to smoke and distribute particular brands in pre-WW2 America.
The default assumption which I think is the most pernicious aspect of the whole thing is that free choice, unhealthy hedonistic pseudo-sophisticated, brought it on and free choice, health-conscious valiant new, undid it.
Media seduction did it, and media seduction undid it. Co-driven going in by corporate interests and going out by pablum-scented health warriors.
Best image of the strange bifurcated mind set around smoking in the 90’s transitional period:
An artistic intelligent socially responsible mother holding a babe in arms chastising her husband for indulging in a quick smoke of American Spirit before he played a barn dance gig in the California hills, a real quick blast of negativity from her viz. that nasty smoking second-hand business, all the while she’s standing by a roughly idling 8-cylinder American station wagon, less than three feet from the tail pipe.
It’s like listening to the Eloi discuss their morning papaya, reading this thread.


Bloix 06.16.09 at 12:56 am

“Media seduction did it, and media seduction undid it.”

I enjoyed being a smoker. It was social, it was pleasurable. The physical object was elegant, and the things you could do with it in your hands made you feel sophisticated. It was a way to connect with total strangers and a way to relax with your friends. I miss it terribly. If didn’t kill you, we’d all still be smoking.


CharlieHipHop 06.16.09 at 3:09 am

If smoking is so bad for you, why are the longest-lived men in the world the Japanese, who are also among the heaviest smokers? Second longest-lived are the French, also heavy smokers.

If smoking is so godawful bad, why are cancer mortality rates, heart disease mortality rates, and — most notably — asthma rates rising even as smoking rates plummet. Correlation is not causation, but shouldn’t we expect these to be falling after 40+ years of anti-smoking propaganda and legislation?

I’m not saying that smoking is good for you, but the facts on the ground are pretty clear: It’s not the devil incarnate.


Alex 06.16.09 at 9:09 am

It’s as if a lot of smokers really wanted a self-signalling excuse to give up.


ejh 06.16.09 at 9:45 am

I suppose it is difficult for anyone living in a foreign country to work out which laws it is generally accepted can be broken, in what ways, and by how much.



Tim Wilkinson 06.16.09 at 10:19 am

roy belmont @60: there’s a lot in that, but wasn’t smoking ubiquitous among adult and juvenile males (in Europe anyway; maybe not with the Mayflower crowd), with the C20th marketing drive only operating to extend it to the more profitable cigarettes – and of course to women? Though the latent promotion-rather-than-brand-competition function started to operate once abstinence became a significant issue.

Bloix @61: It was a way to connect with total strangers that’s one benefit of smoking outside (as obviously one should, except in places that non-smokers can avoid without bearing unfair disadvantage). Also it gets you breaks at work which the non-smokers don’t feel they can demand.
If didn’t kill you, we’d all still be smoking. In some cases it doesn’t – the human genome project can help there…

@62: It’s as if a lot of smokers really wanted a self-signalling excuse to give up. ‘As if’ in what sense? In the minds of the legislators? And surely precisely not self-signalling?


JoB 06.16.09 at 12:58 pm

It’s also more effective against lower back pain than acupuncture as it makes you stand up and walk about every hour or so. Not to mention the liberation you feel of not being steered by the constant desire to ‘live long and prosper’.

I doubt a lot whether death has got a lot to do with stopping. It’s the stink, the irritation of eyes and lungs, the impact on those not choosing to smoke, the social pressure, & the humiliation of being addicted.


Michelle Gervais 06.17.09 at 12:28 pm

You are all quite mistaken and so is the author of this column.

The “success” of the smoking ban had nothing to do with societal norms. It has to do with deputizing every bar/restaurant and wait staff. Its one thing to treat smoking ban laws with the contempt they deserve and have to pay a fine as the price for civil liberty.

It is quite another to cause the owner to receive a $5,000 fine or lose his liquor licence now isn’t it?

As for the success of smoking bans – with statistics being quoted showing how the smoking rate is going down – please be advised that these statistics are based only on the sale of legally taxed cigarettes. In most jurisdictions now, taxed cigarette sales have been overshadowed by the purchase of black-market cigarettes and the government hasn’t got a clue how many smokers there are!



flex 06.17.09 at 1:27 pm

There has never been a law to prevent anybody from operating a non smoker bar or restaurant. Some was nonsmoking before the bans. McDonald, for example.
The trend was there, smoking was declining gradually and it stands to reason that more nonsmoking restaurants and bars was on it’s way before the forced bans on civil liberties sponsored by Big Pharma got into high gear.
The international Big Pharma financial muscle will soon be felt once again by tax payers in developed nations after the current G8 meeting as an agenda has been proposed which will force western nations to PURCHASE left over drugs from International Pharmaceutical companies. This will cost western countries hundreds of BILLIONS and both smoking and nonsmoking taxpayers will pay the bill.


JR 06.17.09 at 8:14 pm

Smokers are a minority, and many nonsmokers think it’s a repellant habit. There are few animal studies on secondhand smoke because most animals react with terror and panic to the idea of being suffocated by tobacco smoke. Given that, it is curious why nonsmoking bars have never succeeded.

But it’s likely that every bar has a large, silent plurality of people who would rather see the smoking ban work.


AC 06.18.09 at 1:22 am

i could not go through all the comments, but the answer is quite easy. The smoking bans worked well because smokers actually want to either smoke less or quit; and this ban actually helps them.


Bob 06.21.09 at 5:43 pm

Here in Chicago, now that the warm weather is here, some bars that comply with the ban are getting hassled by police if a patron standing outside uses the bar house phone to call about a disturbance down the street. The police immediatly want to blame the bar. One police officer was shouting at the lady bartender that “I’ll close this place down” Show me your license” (which is posted on the wall) The poor lady was almost in tears. The bars that ignore the ban are having no problems with the patrons safely inside, bothering absolutly no one,and not getting involved with what is happening down the street. For the bars that comply with the ban, DON’T USE THE BAR HOUSE PHONE TO CALL POLICE if the patrons see a problem in the area. The bar will be blamed for the problem. Use a cell phone.


lemuel pitkin 06.21.09 at 6:19 pm

tatistics being quoted showing how the smoking rate is going down – please be advised that these statistics are based only on the sale of legally taxed cigarettes.

Nope, wrong.

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