This week is the fifth anniversary of the smoking ban in England. At the time, the libertarian streak in me was stronger than it is now, and I recall that I opposed the ban on the grounds of private property rights. Nowadays, I am much less obnoxious. I still hold that the state should stay out of people's living rooms and business, but now as a rule of thumb rather than unyielding dogma. While I still tend to come back from a night boozing reeking of cigarettes, the thought now occurs to me that pubs are much nicer when they are not filled with smoke.
Recently, I had the pleasure to visit Berlin, where a smoking ban has been in place since 2007, but is rarely enforced. I can say without doubt that if England's smoking ban has achieved one thing, it has been to make smoking in cafés and bars a thrilling enterprise. I remember going into one Café, which was mostly empty save for a few customers, and ordering a coffee from the stony faced, overweight proprietor. Sitting down, I was encouraged to see that my table had an ash tray. However, looking to the other customers, neither the elderly man reading the paper in the corner nor the middle aged couple on the next table were taking advantage of the perfectly functional ash trays on their tables.
What was I to do? This was, after all, a far-off foreign land - perhaps the small red pot in the centre of my table was not an ash tray after all, perhaps it had been designed with some altogether different purpose in mind. I asked my girlfriend, who I was travelling with, her opinion on the matter, but I suspected her advice not to smoke had nothing whatsoever to do with the rules and customs of the café. Not wanting to cause offence to the German people, least of all the surly looking owner, I decided to refrain for the time being. However, even before my mind could register the disappointment, the old man in the corner plunged his hand into the pocket of his tench coat, pulled out a lighter and cigarette packet, and began puffing sweet fumes of freedom into that air. Now, with the weight of Anglo-German relations eased from my shoulders, I took my cigarettes from my pocket, and, with a feeling that I was doing something awfully bold and audacious, lifted one to my lips and began to smoke.
Would it be possible to recreate this in Britain? Repealing the ban would only normalise smoking again, taking away all the danger and naughtiness from the German experience. Better would be allowing pubs to host a weekly smoking night. One could retain the oppressive anti-smoking culture, and yet dare to transgress it once in a while. Of course, only in accordance with the law of the land.