Richard Vize on banning outdoor smoking

Richard VizeFour years after the ban on smoking in public buildings was extended across the whole of the UK, libertarian hackles are being raised again, this time by local government moves to ban it outdoors.

The localism bill, soon to reach the end of its parliamentary journey, includes a “power of general competence” allowing councils to act in the interests of their communities, unless that action is prevented by other law. A few councils are examining whether they could use this power to extend the smoking ban to playgrounds, parks, sports venues, and even streets.

They are following where New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has led. In May, having banned trans fats in restaurants and forced fast food chains to put calorie counts on meals, he extended the city’s smoking ban to parks, beaches, plazas, and golf courses. Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco also have restrictions in parks.

In England the first battleground in the new hostilities over smoking has been the historic town of Stony Stratford – “we offer free parking and five star loos” – in Buckinghamshire. Town councillor Paul Bartlett has been branded a fresh air fascist in the Daily Telegraph for calling for a ban on smoking in public places, including the high street.

He did not get far. A “mass light up” outside the town council meeting bore hazy witness to local opposition. So many people tried to cram themselves into the hall that proceedings had to be adjourned to the local church. As the vicar pleaded from the pulpit for the multitude to moderate their unecclesiastical language, Bartlett failed to attract a single supporter.

But elsewhere there has been more success for voluntary bans aimed at protecting children. Councils such as Hackney, Pendle in Lancashire, and parts of Wiltshire have put up no smoking signs in children’s playgrounds. They aren’t legally enforceable, but are making it increasingly unacceptable to smoke near children.

Voluntary bans seem to be the best approach. Indeed, until it is tested in the courts it is unclear whether the localism bill really does give councils the power to impose more restrictions. While the government’s tobacco control plan encourages local communities to “go further than the requirements of smokefree laws” in parks and sports grounds, it does not say councils will be able to enforce extra rules. And after angry messages on the ConservativeHome website in response to the Stony Stratford row, local government minister Bob Neill said: “Reports suggesting the localism bill will allow the introduction of smoking bans in public places are wide of the mark. There is nothing in this bill that provides additional powers to prohibit smoking in open spaces or in private cars.”

Even anti-smoking campaigners Ash are wary of draconian outdoor extensions of the existing laws. They told the BMJ: “We don’t want to say that the slightest whiff of tobacco smoke and you will keel over.”

This common sense approach helps distinguish between the risks from smoke indoors and what is simply a bad example to kids or a nuisance outdoors. If it is the butts that are annoying, providing more bins may be a simpler solution than more laws.

Ash encourages councils to talk to mothers about how best to protect children from smoke. After all, there is not much point in keeping a playground smoke free if parents then poison their kids by having a cigarette in the car on the way home.

Richard Vize is a  journalist and communications consultant. He was the editor of the HSJ 2007-2010. He edited the Guardian supplement for the NHS Confederation conference.