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A tale of two countries

Last night I had a drink with Guillaume Perigois, director of Forest EU, in a bar on the Place du Luxembourg in Brussels opposite the European Parliament.

Smoking is banned in Belgium's bars and restaurants yet here we were, sitting at a table, ashtrays close to hand, with several people smoking at other tables around us.

Technically we were ‘outside’ but in Belgium there is no ludicrously petty regulation that says smoking areas have to be ‘50 per cent open to the elements’.

Consequently we were sitting in a warm and completely enclosed extension at the front of the bar, not hidden away, out of sight, at the back.

Similar facilities are common in countries such as Belgium and France, although I haven’t been to France for ten years so perhaps someone can update me.

It’s not a fixed structure but it feels as though you are inside. We were warm, under cover and comfortable. And the arrangement seemed to suit everyone, including the bar staff.

There's no reason why we shouldn't have similar smoking areas in the UK. Instead Welsh Labour leadership candidate Mark Drakeford, who will become first minister of Wales if he is elected, wants to extend the smoking ban to outdoor areas of cafes and restaurants.

Given the current regulations in Wales, which are a far cry from civilised Belgium, this seems rather spiteful.

Anyway, shortly before Guillaume and I went for our drink I was invited to discuss the issue with Eddie Mair on LBC.

But first he spoke to Suzanne Cass, CEO of ASH Wales.

I lost count of the number of times Cass used the word "progressive" to describe Drakeford's proposal. She said it had "strong public support" and was "not persecuting the smoker", a claim that seemed to surprise the former Radio 4 presenter.

She admitted there is "little evidence" of harm caused by 'secondhand’ smoke in the open air but that doesn't matter to tobacco control campaigners. It's all about denormalisation, keeping smoking out of sight of children, and 'helping' smokers to quit.

Smoking, said ex-smoker Cass, is "not a habit of choice". Not for her perhaps but why should regulations be dictated by those who are weak-willed or easily influenced?

In response I reminded Mair why the workplace smoking ban was introduced. It was, or so we were told, to "protect" the health of bar workers working in enclosed spaces. I then repeated what Cass had said about secondhand smoke outside.

I queried the need for a further ban, pointing out that according to a study in Scotland exposure to secondhand smoke has dropped by 97 per cent in the past two decades. I imagine the same is true in Wales and the rest of the UK.

I also challenged the implication of her claim that since the workplace smoking ban there has been a huge drop in the number of people who smoke. The ban, I pointed out, made very little difference to smoking rates which barely changed between 2007 and 2012 when a more significant fall – the result of other factors – began to kick in.

We had a lively exchange when Mair played devil’s advocate and suggested it was unfair that non-smokers couldn’t sit outside on a sunny day without having someone blow smoke over them, or something like that.

It’s an argument, I suppose, but try telling a smoker who has sat outside in all weather, all year round, that he can’t smoke outside because the anti-smoking brigade now wants exclusive use of the outdoor area when it’s sunny and even when it’s cold and wet, although they will all be inside at that point.

Anyway we have a fight on our hands. Responses to the Welsh government consultation on The Smoke-free Premises and Vehicles (Wales) Regulations 2018 are currently being reviewed and I don't hold out much hope that the consultation report, when it's published, will do us any favours.

Tobacco control is almost a nationalised industry in Wales and the Welsh media make little or no effort to provide any sort of balance in their reports.

If you live in other parts of the UK what happens in Wales also tends to go under the radar, which in this instance would be a huge mistake.

If Wales adopts Drakeford’s proposal the policy will almost certainly be considered by the Scottish government. Even in England there will be some local authorities who want to give it a go.

It’s worth noting too that Drakeford’s plan goes beyond al fresco dining areas because it includes high streets and town centres - the very policy that was ridiculed when it was proposed by a lone and somewhat eccentric councillor in a Buckinghamshire town seven years ago.

Times change but the tobacco control industry stays the same. The prohibitionists are always looking for the next logical step.

I support Brexit but there’s a lot to be said for Brussels!

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Reader Comments (7)

All European countries I have visited have compromised so that paying smoker customers are not treated as lepers by law. No where in Europe is as spiteful to smokers as the UK.

As for Brexit, knowing Govt ignored public opinion on small issues such as blanket smoking bans and plain packs, it was obvious that the govt would ignore the public on the big issues too.

I got the Brexit I expected which is no Brexit at all and that view was based on how much the govt clearly holds the public in contempt.

Meanwhile, I have strong connections in Wales and if the Welsh bully politician excludes smokers from Wales then I can no longer visit the country where two of my children were born.

Fascism is back and has been rising in the UK since 2006, but sadly few people recognise it because free choice, liberty and democracy have been eroded little by little until finally one realises there is no point in voting at all because whatever this era is, it is not democratic. Our votes are worthless.

Now the Tories have finally thrown away any hope of democracy, they will lose the next election because their voters will stay home while Labour students vote twice. Fascism like we have never seen in our lifetimes will soon become apparent when comrade Corbyn's brownshirts take over.

God help this once great isle of ours and the people on it.

Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 11:44 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

I agree with you Pat, however I am hoping the silent majority will make them pay at the ballot box, ie all the main parties, hopefully we will have a majority of independents

Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 14:52 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Kerr

Yes the rule of the bully has taken over in the UK and I see no other future other than to openly defy these nasty prohibitionists. Pat is right that in Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Austria, and Switzerland - countries I visit, there is plenty of accomodation made for smokers as business men appreciate how much trade smokers bring. They have not rolled over as the UK hospitality trade did and consequently their businesses have prospered unlike that of the UK

Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 16:07 | Unregistered CommenterTimothy Goodacre

The problem with independents, David, is that they work for self interest. I haven't met any in my area who are tolerant of smokers and their choice of lifestyle. I could not possibly vote for intolerance in any form. There is always room for choice and respect for how others choose to live their lives. If politicians cannot see this when looking at smokers, they cannot see it at all and will extend it with justifcation. Who or what next? My guess is the over state approved size and weight.

Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 16:52 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

The proposals for outdoor smoking bans (at patios and on streets) must be resisted at every step. Beyond that the lies about second hand smoke must be exposed and extreme smoking bans relaxed to allow separate smoking rooms.

Someone should remind Mr. Drakeford that just last year a majority (near 60%) in Wales supported restoring smoking rooms to Welsh Pubs!

See "A poll has revealed almost 60% of people want smoking rooms in Welsh pubs" at

Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 20:45 | Unregistered CommenterVinny Gracchus

Pat, to quote Monty Python, always look on the bright side of life. There is always a chance that the good people of Wales will not vote for this idiot drakeford. They must realise that he is nothing but a bully and someone will stand up to him in the old fashioned way

Friday, November 16, 2018 at 7:36 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Kerr

Who would vote Tory now, David? Not in Wales. Plaid Cymru has a better chance - or Welsh speaking Labour - and tolerance for smokers is not on the party agenda.

Friday, November 16, 2018 at 8:12 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

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