Friday, May 05, 2006

Edinburgh World Heritage Concerned that Outdoor Smokers are Destroying the Image of Edinburgh

Heritage groups in Edinburgh have expressed concern over the image that smokers presents to city visitors, and have suggested that the recently implemented legislation that bans smoking in all pubs was designed not to protect nonsmokers but to try to force smokers to quit smoking.

According to an article in the Scotsman: "Heritage groups today warned that the smoking shelters which have sprung up outside city pubs threaten to destroy Edinburgh's historic beauty. Campaigners claim that awnings and ashtrays erected without permission, as well as groups of smokers milling around outside premises, will have a detrimental effect on the look of areas such as the Grassmarket. Quite apart from the damage it could do to listed buildings, it will mean large groups of smokers standing outside, obstructing the pavement and potentially causing a nuisance. 'These smoking areas are against the spirit of the legislation, which was meant to encourage people to stop smoking, not push them out to smoke on the streets.' A spokesman for Edinburgh World Heritage said: 'The experience of other cities such as Dublin, has shown that streetscapes can become cluttered and unattractive. What image does that present to visitors?'"

The Rest of the Story

The Heritage groups are making two interesting points.

First, they are arguing that smokers need to be contained outside of the view of the public because they present a terrible image that destroys the impression visitors get from the city.

Second, they are arguing that the purpose of the pub smoking ban was to get smokers to quit smoking, not to protect nonsmokers by ensuring that they smoke outside rather than inside the pubs.

I think each of these points is dangerous and together, they expose my contention that the anti-smoking movement is moving towards a prohibitionist agenda, albeit disguised in other ways.

Let's start with the perceived need to confine smokers so that they will not be seen by visitors to the city.

Well that's a fine idea. While you're at it, why don't you also confine fat people so that visitors don't get the impression that there are lazy people in Edinburgh who aren't eating nutritiously and getting plentiful physical activity? We wouldn't want visitors to get the impression that Edinburgh is a city in which there is obesity, would we? That could destroy tourism overnight.

This is a ludicrous proposition. And by the way, I have no problem with the city regulating its appearance in terms of awnings and outdoor structures. Every city has various zoning laws and that's completely appropriate. But it is quite clear that the heritage groups are being motivated, at least in part, by the view that smokers in public are unsightly and that people need to be shielded from seeing them.

That is intolerance and insensitivity. If anything, we should be thanking smokers who smoke outside because they are considerate enough to protect the pub workers from what used to be a significant public health hazard.

Now let's go on to the idea that the purpose of the smoking ban was really to get people to quit smoking, rather than to ensure the health of pub workers by eliminating the secondhand smoke.

This is a dangerous argument, because it undermines the entire public health nature of the debate over smoking bans. Frankly, if the issue were encouraging people to quit smoking, I would not be supporting smoking bans and I wouldn't have devoted the better part of my career so far to working for such laws.

The appropriate justification for smoking bans is to protect workers from secondhand smoke exposure, not to force smokers to quit. While there is evidence that smoking bans do encourage smoking cessation, this is clearly not the purpose of the law. It could be viewed as an added benefit to the law, but it in no way justifies the intrusion into the operation of businesses.

But more importantly and perhaps more subtlely, this statement by Edinburgh World Heritage suggests the disguised and insidious agenda that has crept into the anti-smoking movement: to get rid of smokers, period. It is apparently not enough to keep smokers outside where they will not expose workers in the pubs. Now, we need to keep them from smoking outside as well, and confine them to the home. But even that does not appear to be enough. After all, according to anti-smoking groups, that's child abuse and should be outlawed.

The problem with all of this is that it really destroys the integrity of the tobacco control movement. And it undermines our credibility and effectiveness. If the public comes to view us as prohibitionists who are just trying to get rid of smokers, then we are going to lose our reputation as being a public health-based movement. We will start to be seen as simply a fanatical crusade.

Stories like this one do little to help our image as public health practitioners.

(See Belinda Cunnison's response, published earlier this week, to the argument that smokers tarnish the city's image).

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