Thursday, 17 September 2009

Bloomberg gets down to brass tacks

It looks as if the proposed smoking ban in New York parks is to be abandoned, not because it would be draconian but because, as Mayor Bloomberg has conceded, it would be unenforceable:

"Our Police Department has enough to do. They can't be going around giving tickets."

No one should interpret this as an indication that Bloomberg's war on smoking has reached its logical conclusion. Far from it, as the New York Post reports:

Bloomberg sounded tougher than ever toward smokers.

"Make no mistake about it," he said. "This city is not walking away from our commitment to make it as difficult and as expensive to smoke as we possibly can."

This is a revealing comment. In the past, smoking bans have nearly always been justified on the basis of non-smokers' rights and secondhand smoke. Tax rises have been justified on the basis that smoking-related diseases cost society billions. 

But with so many indoor smoking bans now in force, the secondhand smoke argument is running out of steam. Similarly, tobacco taxes are now so high that it is difficult to pretend that all that money is needed to treat smokers (even Julian Le Grand has admitted that nonsmokers cost the NHS more than smokers) .

In Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, I suggest that as the passive smoking and tax arguments become less credible, the anti-smoking movement will need fresh rhetoric. I think they have three options:

a) move on to other causes

b) convince the public that secondhand smoke is deadly in the tiniest quantities, even outdoors

c) become overtly paternalistic; tell smokers it is for their own good

We are currently seeing a move towards all three of these. Many health professionals and epidemiologists are finding rich pickings in the emerging campaigns against food and drink. A few others are trying desperately hard to gather some evidence against 'third-hand smoke'. Many more are beginning to openly admit that they simply don't like people smoking and will use whatever force is necessary to stop them. 

Bloomberg falls into this last category and probably always has. He may not have intended to express his true feelings so explicitly on this occasion, but it's no bad thing for the standard of public discourse that he did. Whether you agree with him or not, a serious debate about the state's role in legislating private behaviour can only be had when both sides speak openly about their intentions.


BTS said...

I think he made a serious slip there. It surely can't be wise to own up to the truth like that. How many MPs in this country have come out and said, "Well, I think the ID card scheme is a great idea because it will allow us to keep more of an eye on you lot. Basically, we don't trust you and we're are fairly certain that you're up to something.."

the_bat said...

If there's a life after this one, and there is any justice in it, I kind of hope Bloomberg may suddenly find himself in the eternal job of emptying ashtrays in some great celestial cigar bar as Winston Churchill, Mark Twain lounge about, puffing away, and discussing the sorry state of the earthly world.

Frank Davis said...

Bloomberg is an ex-smoker, of course.

BTS said...

That would explain it. They're often as bad born again Christians. What irks me about their stance particularly is that they're basically saying that they've had their fun and now they're finished everyone else should too.

Ex-smokers can't really justify ETS being harmful unless they're basically admitting to having been a selfish git for n years and now want to ruin the fun for everyone else, after the assumed damage may have already been done.