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Herald on Sunday Editorial: Smoking ban idea goes too far

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The process of making tobacco-smoking socially unacceptable grinds on with a remorseless inevitability. It's a safe bet that, by the end of this century, tobacco-smokers will be confined to darkened rooms, like the opium dens and speakeasies of the past.

It has been a swift shift in public policy and community attitudes, most notable for the fact that the former has led the latter, rather than vice versa. Barely a generation ago, smokers in the workplace - often in a minority - disdained their workmates' pleas for clean air and puffed away; now they congregate outside offices to smoke, smiling apologetically when the same workmates pass, and exchanging pleasantries with fellow smokers about how they're thinking about giving up.

This footpath smoking is one of several behaviours in the sights of public health officials, who this week asked Auckland councillors to ban smoking in all public outdoor areas in the city. Their proposal, backed by all the city's health boards, purports to be aimed at "preventing uptake of smoking among young people", although it's hard to see how even the most impressionable kid would want to emulate the windblown and woebegone addicts in doorways and bus shelters. But the aim is also to ban smoking in open spaces - parks, sports fields and playgrounds, as well as in malls and pedestrian areas.

The proposal goes further than the call last February by researchers at Otago University for restrictions, common in Australia and comprehensive in Queensland, on outdoor smoking at bars, cafes and restaurants. The terrace of a bar is a confined space even if it is in the open air and smoke-drift from adjoining tables is disturbing to non-smokers, who legitimately complain that smokers monopolise the best seats in the house. Likewise it is easy to understand non-smokers' disgust at having to run a smoky gauntlet at building entrances where smokers gather.

But the proposed extension to take in all public spaces, including streets, beaches and parks, seems like a bridge too far. For one thing, as even the promulgators of the ban admit, it is impossible to enforce. Human beings do not display registration numbers and have addresses stored in a database so that they may efficiently be served with infringement notices. Asked for their details, they could - and would, more often than not - lie, or give the name of an acquaintance they did not care for.

Even allowing for a ban that authorities would call "aspirational" (which is to say meaningless), the prospect of smoking wardens ducking out from behind trees to hand out tickets is more in the realm of farce than sensible social policy - at least until such time as we microchip or barcode the entire population.

Repeated studies show that price is the single biggest determinant in persuading people away from tobacco, and steady increases in excise taxes, the latest of them at the beginning of this month, have had a measurable effect on smoking rates. Most smokers want to quit and, by and large, accept price increases with glum resignation. Most smokers also feel guilty enough and with exceptions, conspicuous only because of their rarity, moderate their behaviour out of concern for others. Disapproval and the embarrassment it engenders is a far more powerful disincentive to smoking in public than any council ban would be.

Smokers can help their own cause by conscientiously showing consideration for others, of course. Bleating about "smokers' rights" does them no credit. Nor does promulgating such fictions as the old one about how they pay more in tax than they cost the health system: the respective figures are actually $1 billion and $1.7 billion a year, not counting the loss to national productivity of their early deaths.

Smoking is, in more ways than one, a dying habit. But its end will not be hastened by seeking to criminalise people for using a legal drug - even if it is the only one which, used as directed, inevitably harms users and those around them.

- Herald on Sunday

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