Editorial: Smoking ban outdoors could be step too far

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The anti-smoking juggernaut has worked up a substantial head of steam. Just last year, the Maori Affairs select committee put forward a prescription that it said would make the country smoke-free by 2025. Now, a similarly radical agenda is being pursued by Otago University researchers who say the ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and cafes has been only partly successful. They want Australian-style restrictions on outdoor smoking in such areas.

Their call is based on research that showed high levels of air pollution inside bars in areas next to the outdoor smoking areas. They would address this by extending statutory smoke-free areas to cover half of seated outdoor areas of hospitality areas. Smokers would, in effect, be squeezed further out into the cold. "This could be justified on grounds of protecting workers' health and fairness to non-smokers - allowing some reasonable access to semi-smokefree outdoor seating - and is likely to have high public political acceptability," the researchers say.

On the latter point, they are probably right. The smoking ban in bars and other enclosed public places attracted minimal opposition - even from seemingly resigned smokers - when it was introduced in 2004. The researchers suggest that since then, community sentiment has become even sterner, so much so that policy-makers have failed to keep step with it. Compared to the public, district health board members, current and former MPs and officials place a far greater emphasis on smokers' right to smoke than protection from secondhand smoke.

The policymakers have some reason for their caution, however. At the back of their minds are doubtless two questions. What will be next? And where will all this end? The Otago researchers answer the first query by also recommending a ban on smoking in cars carrying children. This, yet again, raises the ante. Restrictions on outdoor smoking take things a step beyond prohibition in confined public places. A ban on smoking in cars or in the home raises questions about private places, where people's actions are usually considered their own business.

It is sometimes forgotten that a relatively large group of people is involved. Despite concerted efforts to reduce the attractiveness of smoking - through price rises, education campaigns, restrictions on the promotion of cigarettes and the reining in of shop displays, as well as smokefree areas - about 20 per cent of people still light up. By and large, they have continued to go to smokefree bars and restaurants despite dire predictions from the hospitality industry. If they have responded at all, it is to patronise bars that provide outdoor areas with heaters and television.

But it is reasonable to ask if there would, again, be little impact if further restrictions were placed on outdoor smoking at bars and restaurants. Would this be the final straw for some smokers, who, deprived of a reasonable outlet for their habit, would choose to stay at home? Perhaps, finally, we would see the predicted "garages", where people could smoke and drink, springing up throughout the suburbs.

In relatively quick time, smoking has been transformed from an acceptable pastime to a widely vilified practice. It has, in the words of health officials, been "denormalised". The public has been swept along by the crusade. Smokers, whether huddling together outside workplaces and bars or lighting up a lonely cigarette, look increasingly sad. Yet more and more sanctions and nudges have not eradicated the habit. Marginalising smokers even further, as the Otago researchers suggest, is unlikely to be any more successful. There is good reason for qualms about proposals that smack of excessive zealotry.

- NZ Herald

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