11 October 2007

No Smoking

Today I walked into 'Bagels and Beans' to have one of their freshly-made bagels for lunch; and the first thing I did was gag on the smoke. I suppose the effect was accentuated by the contrast with the slightly chilly autumn air outside; but still, my first inclination was to walk right outside again and find somewhere else. Instead I stayed, and watched the woman behind the counter prepare the food, all the while aware of the unpleasant stink in the air.

Since we got back from Britain, I've felt disgust at cigarette smoke more than before. The trip was a revelation. For the last 9 years I've considered almost every aspect of German café/pub life to be superior to its British counterpart—not least the fact that there is hardly any distinction between café and pub. But in Britain they now have something better that the lack of drunkards, the ability to order coffee or hot chocolate at night without being looked at like a freak, and cafés that stay open until one in the morning—in Britain, they have no smoking in public places. And this, good people, is awesome.

Of course, all the smokers will complain about having to go and stand outside when they want a fag. Irrelevant, as far as I'm concerned. The next step in the argument is to accuse us non-smokers of being hypocrites—while our objection is that smokers impose their habits on us, our solution is to impose our will on them. Their habit makes us uncomfortable; we solve it by making them uncomfortable. We limit their freedom to relax by forcing them into the cold night air. How illiberal is that?

But there is an important difference. If smoking was a habit which did not impact on everyone else, then there might be some truth in the claims of hypocrisy. But one person smoking in a pub results in everyone else smelling of smoke. You might not feel unclean after a cigarette, but I do. My hair stinks; my clothes stink. Do you have any idea how revolting it is to eat food while a person on the table opposite is puffing away? It's no fun, and that's a fact.

No: the issue is not about one side imposing their will on the other. It's about responsibility. You chose to smoke; you know it's unhealthy, and that passive smoking is bad for everyone around you. You chose to fill your lungs with tar; now live with the consequences. True, smoking is your choice, and a liberal society should be amenable to people's choices (I'm with The Economist in believing that all drugs should be legalised)—but don't think that the right to choose gives you the concomitant right to infringe on everyone else's rights.

Imagine how fabulous it would be if all the smokers of the world realised how unpleasant their habit is for everyone else, and voluntarily decided to leave cafés to smoke. An excellent world, but it isn't about to happen any time soon. But short of that, it's only right that governments take matters into their own hands and ban smoking in public places—if you're not prepared to take responsibility for your antisocial habits, don't be surprised when others make the decision for you.

Come on, Germany: what are you waiting for?

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