David Hockney, up in Smoke

David Hockney has been talking to the BBC about the UK’s smoking ban: he’s not a fan, and suggests that there ought to be “smoking rooms” available.  It’s not the first time that he’s gone public in his opposition to the ban – a few years ago he was interviewed on the Today programme and spent his time banging on about how the ban was “destroying bohemia” – because, clearly, sitting in a smoky pub is a necessary condition of artistic achievement.  Take away the smoke, and the talent vanishes.  Or something.  In actual fact, he just sounded like a very confused and crotchety old man.

I suppose that Hockney’s position is broadly libertarian – in the interview on the link I provided above, he makes accusations about governmental paternalism.  If it is the case that the smoking ban is paternalistic, then he may have a point: though I think that there are times when paternalism is warranted (and I’m certainly suspicious of the kneejerk “paternalism=wrong” response that you sometimes see in bioethics), I can also see the arguments against it.  However, I simply disagree that the ban is all that paternalistic: yes, it does make smoking that bit less attractive when it’s cold and rainy outside; but a concerted paternalism would have meant that smoking was also banned in open spaces and, where possible, in private.  (Escalating the tax on fags, by contrast, may be more straightforwardly paternalistic; the acceptability of doing so is for debate at another time, though.)

One of the better arguments for a ban – and one that Hockney doesn’t address – is motivated by a concern for the people who’d have to work at one of these smokers’ havens. Here I speak from some experience: I’ve spent the best part of 13 years working a bar (and can still be found pulling pints here on occasion).  You can invoke the harm principle all you want, but it won’t generate a right to smoke, because indoor smoking is unequivocally nasty for people around you; and if those people around you have to be there because it’s their job, then they don’t have much choice.  Working behind a bar isn’t a dangerous occupation in the way that, say, mining is: you can’t take the dust from a mine, but you can take the smoke from a bar.  Smoke isn’t essential to having or serving a drink.  And this, I think, is a knock-down argument in favour of the ban.

Bluntly, when I was behind the bar, I’d sooner have had people shooting up than smoking, because it’s easier to avoid the noxious effects of injecting.  When we went smoke-free at the New Vic a couple of years ahead of the ban, the difference was obvious and welcome – my throat was less tickly, and my clothes stank less.  And I only worked a few nights a week; there are those who’re dependent on bar jobs and other such sources of income who’re put at risk unnecessarily by passive smoking and who presumably had a much worse time of it.  Hockney’d want his smokers’ rooms attended to, I presume; but employers would also have an obligation not to put staff at risk or inconvenience.  You can’t have it both ways.  (That point extends to staff who smoke themselves: just because you put your own health in danger, it doesn’t follow that it’s OK for others to put your health in danger too, any more than it’s OK for me to shoot a suicidal person.)

Nor would it do to insist that people behind bars have a choice to work somewhere else: they don’t.  Bar work is, for some, convenient and the best possible source of income.  It’s often not something about which people get a choice, too – it’s one of the few jobs that demands fairly little in the way of qualifications.  Finally, it’s not as if a potential barworker can choose between smoking and non-smoking establishments; he has to follow the vacancies, and no bar manager in his right mind would turn away smokers to competitors.  (At the New Vic we had the advantage of a captive audience, so we could afford to take the risk.  But we noticed the difference when it came to people staying behind post show.  A unilateral smoking ban in a conventional bar wouldn’t be an option.)

Having designated smokers’ rooms looks at first glance like a nice, liberal way of attending to smokers’ wishes.  But it is no such thing.  You might love Hockney’s work as a painter – but when it comes to matters such as this, he’s really not up to much.

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