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Smoke, water and public health interventions

August 3, 2007

Smoking was banned in public spaces in Scotland 18 months ago, and a lot more recently in England. But if the state really wants to improve public health they should provide free drinking water.

The smoking ban is great: I worked in the catering industry for five years and breathed in huge amounts of other people’s smoke. It made me sick, and I constantly had a cough or cold. I am sure the long term effect will be a great improvement in public health.

Before the ban came into place in Scotland, people predicted chaos, the collapse of the catering industry and all Scotland’s pubs closing, and massive non-compliance tying up the legal system. Considering that there are some pretty rough pubs in Scotland, I also expected a bit of trouble.

What happened?

People left the pubs and went and stood in the pissing Scottish rain when they needed a smoke. New social rituals emerged, such as ‘smirting’ – using the excuse of going for a smoke to flirt with some one. Even my smoking friends mostly agree it’s a good thing: they’ve become a lot more conscious of how much they smoke, and instead of 40 on a night out, they now smoke four or five. Only a handful of people have been fined.

There have been some interesting unintended consequences: going past strip clubs you can see all the wee hoors bundled up in coats having a smoke outside, which I’m sure puts off some of the punters as they look rather less glamorous in the harsh light of the street.

Some of it’s been ridiculous too, like forbidding stage performers from using lit cigarettes as props. I wonder if there will be any high profile arrests during the Edinburgh Festival this year, as the more daring, edgy performers challenge the might of the State my lighting up on stage.

Before the ban was introduced in England a year later, the first thing I noticed on arriving in that country was the smell of cigarette smoke. Having got used to clean Scottish air, England’s airports, restaurants, motorway services and pubs stank of smoke.

People predicted riots in the streets and complete social breakdown. The doughty English would refuse to comply with ‘repressive’ attempts by the nanny state to take away their freedoms.

Amazing how self-righteous addicts get when you threaten their drug supply, isn’t it? There were attacks from Right as well as Left, with some socialists claiming it was a bourgeios plot to deprive the workers of one of their few remaining pleasures:

“It is no coincidence that the Nazis were also the first country to ban smoking….”

Calm down, comrade.

What happened when the law came into effect?

People meekly put their fags out.

The Brits are far too used to doing what they’re told to seriously challenge the State.

I do think there shoud be exceptions to the smoking ban in some cases, for instances for Middle Eastern clubs that provide water pipes (shishas), and cigar bars.

But if the government really wants to do something about health, it should provide free water.

I visited Rome recently. One of the great things about that city is that it is full of fountains offering fresh, clean water for free. And people drink it. Most people walk around with a water bottle that they refill at every opportunity.

It’s widely recognised in the UK that people need to drink a lot more water, and the government spends money advising people to do so. But frequently, there just isn’t any free water available.

Some people claim that bottled water is an idiot tax. I know it is, but I still buy it, because the alternative is to go thirsty when you’re away from home. At an average price of £1 for 500ml, people often go without, or buy coke or beer instead. No wonder everyone’s dehydrated.

You can’t even drink from the taps in bathrooms because a lot of them only have hot water.

My flight to Rome took three hours on a budget airline that sells all drinks – no free water, and you can’t bring any with you, because you’re not allowed to bring more than 100ml of liquid on board flights. A bottle of water on a plane costs £2,50 for 330ml. You have no choice but to buy it.

That should be illegal. Like air, water is a basic necessity, and should be freely available to everyone everywhere: on planes, on trains and in the city centre.

It would make a massive difference to public health, and a massive difference to the environment, with millions fewer plastic bottles being discarded.

But of course the drinks industry would complain, as it would cut into their profits, and we all know the government exists to serve corporate interests.

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