Tuesday, August 10, 2004

So, who gave them permission?

I don't smoke. Never did. I think that it is a dirty habit.

But just now I'm raising a flag in defence of smokers in Ireland. Which puts me in a minority according to various survey results being trotted out by our Government.

The same Government has a vested interest in such results since it introduced a ban on smoking in pubs here. The only places smokers can now have a puff are outside those same pubs or in an open 'designated' smoking area that is usually a yard with a summer table and umbrella.

Not all pubs have such a place, and a constant group of men and women nowadays shift in and out through the front doors of pubs here, refuming their throats and lungs. It is a sad little sight. It will get even more so when we get into winter.

I worked in, and managed, a pub for more than a dozen years in the 60s and 70s. I actually grew up in it before that, as it was part of the family business.

I passive-smoked just as did my fellow workers and any customers who were non-smokers. Something that they now say can be even more cancer-provoking than straightforward smoking. I do not disbelieve this.

I used to come home from work stinking of cigarette smoke that wasn't mine. My clothes had to be washed after every night. Cleaning up the pub before we opened the next day was a smelly and unpleasant job with J-cloths, stiff brush and vacuum cleaner.

I did my best to make it more comfortable for those of my customers who didn't smoke. I even became notorious for clearing ashtrays on the counter before the people using them had finished the cigarette that was making it dirty.

But the downsides of smoking were an integral part of being in a pub. Those of us who didn't smoke, on either side of the counter, accepted it. If we didn't like it bad enough, we could move on.

(I did, though not because of the cigarette smoke. It's a different story.)

Fast forward to a year or more ago, when the Irish Government decided that it would ban totally smoking in any place where there were employees.

After some representation, and against the wishes of the minister who was the Messiah of this programme, prisons were excluded from the ban, as were hotel bedrooms and mental institutions. Other representations, especially from the 'hospitality' industry, were dismissed.

Drinking in pubs had already been showing a downturn, a funny thing to think about in Ireland. But there are now even fewer people in most of the summertime pubs than there are in a normal off-season.

Staff members at one of my locals, who were in support of the ban when it came into force first, now tell me that they'd have no worries if it were rescinded. "There's no point in us having a healthier workplace if there's no work," one told me last Friday teatime. I was the only customer there, at a time when it should have been busy enough to keep the two people behind the bar hopping. And I was only there because I like to write at a pub counter when I get tired of the office.

There was a minor revolt last month when a Galway City publican defied the ban, and allowed his customers to smoke in one lounge. In a matter of half an hour his place was jammed. Within three days, several other publicans around the country were doing likewise.

The Government, fearful that this could prompt a total revolt, immediately used its nuclear weapon. Rather than going through the legislation which it had gone to such pains to put in place. Warnings. Prosecutions. Eventually fines. Hefty ones.

The fearful state got no less than the Attorney General to threaten the original publican with an immediate High Court injunction, warning him that he would go to jail if he ignored it. He caved in.

That bothers me. If the state has enough belief in what it establishes then it will allow due process. It will play by the rules it sets up itself. If it is scared that it might have made a mistake, even if only in political terms, it uses the nuclear option.

I ask one question. If the state absolutely believed in what it was doing, for the common good, why did it not go all the way and ban cigarettes altogether because they are bad for us? And at the same time be truly moral and opt out of accepting the tax paid on those same cigarettes?

If we really want our elected politicians to provide us with a totally 'nanny state', then we've already empowered them on the first leg of the process. And we're letting them have the best of both worlds, ban the drug and still tax it. The kind of system that politicians really love.

Again, I don't smoke. I never will, unless I contract a disease for which the symptoms can only be alleviated by smoking marijuana or something illegal like that. In that case I'd have no hesitation.

Otherwise, I totally dislike the habit. But, figuratively at least, I'm standing outside the pubs in support of those who want to do what I don't.

I feel I have to. Otherwise the same state will probably next be issuing me with a ration coupon for the bottle of wine I'm drinking tonight. A ration of a bottle for one week. Probably at a price that will bring in the same tax as the three or four a week I drink now.

For my own good, they will say.

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