Voices: Give smokers a break – let us light up outside!

No more smoking outside pubs? What’s next – banning pubs altogether? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
No more smoking outside pubs? What’s next – banning pubs altogether? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Rarely do you see a smoker lighting up and taking a drag while out and about anymore. And (I’ll whisper it): I miss it.

Smoking areas outside pubs or cafés can feel like a sanctuary: a place to unwind, to breathe tendrils of smoke into the night air, to make new friends (or even meet a love interest, bonding over a shared activity). It’s a chance to chat and bitch, to put the world to rights – or even just to take a breather from a busy and chaotic night out; to think for a moment in peace and quiet. It can provide space to escape a bad date, or to swap dating and love advice with other women. And it’s more than that: in Britain, finishing a cigarette before you go inside is a tradition.

Now, that’s not to say that banning the possibility of passive smoking is a bad thing – Labour wouldn’t have come out in support of Lord Young’s amendment to the Levelling Up Bill which would ban smoking outside of pubs and restaurants if it was – but, importantly, it is a choice.

The numbers of smokers have been declining since the 1970s, and ONS stats show in 2022 that it was down to 12.9 per cent from 13.5 per cent the previous year. Attitudes towards smokers have changed dramatically too – so the smoking area often feels transgressive or “naughty”. That has the effect of making it incredibly friendly and like you’re “all in this together”.

Listen: we are adults. We know what we are doing. We are keeping out of confined spaces and out of the way. And banning smoking from outdoor hospitality seating areas on pavements outside pubs and restaurants – which is what has been suggested as part of the government’s plan to have a “smoke free society” by 2030 – feels like just another attack on our freedom of choice.

As a country, we now seem to be going down the road of banning everything that’s not good for us – which implies we are somehow unable to make that decision for ourselves. What happened to civil liberty? Or plain old trust?

It feels hypocritical from the government, who said in July 2020: "The government will not ban outdoor smoking … [it] would lead to significant closures and job losses."

Recognition of the impact of these closures is nowhere to be seen now. This potential ban could devastate businesses, if people avoid pubs because they know they won’t be able to smoke.

The hospitality industry is still recovering from Covid and struggling with rising bills, plus less footfall amid the cost of living crisis. In the first three months of 2023, more than 150 pubs closed following crippling energy bills. Can we really afford to decimate pubs and restaurants further?

But what really gets to me is the injustice. Alcohol is just as dangerous and equally damaging, as well as being freely available. Why aren’t we hearing about drinking bans? (I wouldn’t support those either, but it does feel like “one rule for them, another for us...”).

No one bats an eyelid at a boozer. Positive drinking motifs are everywhere, from cards to clothing – including socially accepted “lols” about binge drinking and hangovers. The same can’t be said for smoking.

What would happen to workers if they’re no longer allowed to smoke outside the office, I wonder? What if that part of the pavement is next to one of the “banned zones”? Will they have to stand in the middle of the road to enjoy a quick fag break during a gruelling 16-hour shift?

Instead of taking away our choices, how about actually planning for them? Introduce outdoor smoking areas and non-smoking areas in pub gardens. Invest in better ways to encourage people to stop smoking.

Put it this way: when you’re living in heavily polluted places like London (and breathing the air is the equivalent of smoking 189 or 154 cigarettes a year, or up to 3.6 a week) banning smokers from outside areas hardly feels like an important first port of call.

So please, let’s not keep stigmatising smokers and making us out to be pariahs any more than we feel already. And let’s not take away our choice to enjoy a quick fag outside a pub. Our social lives depend on it.