Belgian trains are about to become off-limits to smokers and the debate over extending the ban to other public spaces simmers on in Belgium – and across Europe.
While society struggles to kick its smoking habit, a few months ago I finally succeeded in stubbing out my – hopefully – last cigarette and shaking off an addiction that has haunted me for all my adult life and several of my teenage years.
Belgium's railway company the NMBS/SNCB has made an early New Year's resolution of its own to quit. Come 1 January, smoking will no longer be permitted on any of its trains and anyone caught lighting up will pay a hefty fine.
The announcement of Belgian Rail's decision coincided with world anti-cancer day, which has re-ignited demands by such groups as the anti-cancer league and members of Belgium's regional governments for smoking to be banned in bars and restaurants across the country.
Despite my long addiction, I tried and continue to try to live a healthy and environmentally friendly life. I cycle and recycle, I go to the gym, I don't drive and I live near my work. If anything, my 13-year dependence on tobacco – as much psychological as physical – made me a long-time (passive) supporter of measures to discourage people from smoking and to keep its harm down to a minimum.
Although it is still not clear precisely how dangerous tobacco is to bystanders, passive smoking is almost certainly harmful and cigarettes should be kept, as much as possible, out of places where people will be forced to inhale the fumes involuntarily.
I am all for the injunctions against smoking already in force in the workplace, government offices, aeroplanes, cinemas, etc. In such locations, a smoker would be forcing others to share his or her stale and dangerous air.
Raising the bar
However, I think the direction the prohibition drive is taking is ill advised. The anti-smoking campaign is in danger of gradually becoming less of a campaign and more of an inquisition.
Rather than stigmatising smoking, it is beginning to stigmatise smokers. It is paradoxical that, as soft drugs become more mainstream, nicotine is increasingly being pushed to the outer bounds of acceptability and lawfulness.
Meanwhile, government treasuries are just as hooked on nicotine as smokers. This was amply demonstrated by the federal government's decision to shore up its budget shortfall this year not by unpopular rises in income tax but by raising the price of cigarettes. One day, smokers may need to take out a second mortgage to finance their addiction.
Even when I was a smoker, I found the smoking carriage on the train a turn off, because it always had a rank odour about it and one would emerge from its depths reeking of damp tobacco.
But the key issue is one of not infringing on the individual choices of members of a sizeable minority. By abolishing the smoking carriage, smokers who wish to have a cigarette during their journey have nowhere to go.
By keeping a single smoking car on a train, smokers have the choice to ride on it and non-smokers can use the rest of the train. Perhaps the NMBS, if it is in a mood for change, can abolish the absurd practice on newer models of train of allotting part of the carriage to smokers. Unlike a dedicated smoking car, this system forces everyone to smoke.
By a similar token, imposing a carpet ban on smoking in restaurants and bars would infringe on people's freedom of choice and could give rise to some ludicrous situations.
In many bars, 90 percent of the punters are smokers. That means that one day soon we could be faced with absurdist set pieces in which the warm, dry interior of a pub is completely empty while all the customers are standing outside with their cigarette and pint – this glorious summer excepted – in the pouring rain.
Besides, bars are hardly temples of healthy living – their function is, after all, to sell intoxicating drugs. So, a non-smoker downing a pint, a glass of wine or some lethal spirit concoction may actually be inflicting as much or perhaps more long-term damage on their person than a little passive smoking might cause.
Sometimes knee-jerk prohibitions are met with casual defiance. A case in point is a tiny little coffee bar I used to frequent for the best cappuccino in Cairo, made by the same hands for the past 30 years or so.
It was an ideal place for burying your nose in your newspaper or book, or engaging in laid-back banter with a random assortment of people. Then, one day, the local council decided to disturb the peace of this idyllic spot by imposing a smoking ban.
The punters, nearly all of whom smoked, looked at the cryptic signs in incredulous bemusement. But, within a few days, the novelty had worn off and routine returned to the coffee bar, except for the management's refusal to put out ashtrays out of fear of getting fined.
The only sign of the attempted change – behind the slightly bluish wisp and the powerful aroma of tobacco mixed in with several varieties of coffee and Middle Eastern pastries – was the no-smoking signs looking ignored and lonely in the noisy bar.
Licence to smoke
Far more sensible then jumping onto the banned wagon, so to speak, would be to give people genuine choice in how they spend their leisure time.
Just as the government grants booze licences, it can start issuing tobacco ones. Then bars and restaurants can choose the licence that best suits the majority of their clientele, and they would have to indicate whether they are smoking/non-smoking establishments.
That way, a smoker entering a non-smoking restaurant will be aware of it and can leave or refrain from lighting up. The same principle would apply to a non-smoker in a smoking restaurant or bar.
In our efforts to live healthier lives, we must not single smokers out as the only group who have ‘passive' victims. Take motorists, traffic accidents kill hundreds of people in Belgium alone each year. There is also a growing body of scientific evidence indicating that the chemical soup in vehicle fumes causes cancer, increases the risk of heart disease and lowers male fertility.
One recent US study of hundreds of thousands of people over two decades suggested that long-term exposure to car fumes multiplied the risk of getting lung cancer significantly.
In fact, I've heard from environmentalists that, in more polluted metropolises, spending time on the streets can be the equivalent of smoking a couple of packs a day. And yet, despite the potentially lethal effects of ‘passive' driving, we have not seen the emergence of a successful movement to ban automobiles from our roads.
Although as a society we have to do everything within our power to minimise the fallout from smoking, we should also ensure that we do not transform smokers into social outcasts. We have to recognise that they, just like other sizeable minorities, have collective rights. The potential harm they do to others must be weighed up and looked at in context.
This article appeared on Expatica in September 2003.