Few bad habits arouse intense passions so publicly as smoking. The gentle kick, the momentary pause are intimately private delights, yet the unspoken sharing of the pleasure with a fellow-smoker makes it part of social exchange. There has been, for long, the guilty knowledge that smoking is damaging, even lethal. Recently, the actual amount of damage has incited governments to limit smoking in public spaces. Public good is too strong an argument for any government to evade. But there is, no doubt, a question of individual liberty too. One might, at a stretch, be granted the right to endanger oneself, but one has no right to expose others to danger.
This is where, it would seem, the British government has dithered. The announcement of the final plan of the ban on smoking in public places, to be implemented from 2007, has created as much ruckus as apparently took place inside the chambers where the ban was being debated. The health secretary, Ms Patricia Hewitt, has put as brave a face as she can on the fact that the ban is not total, it will allow smoking in pubs that do not serve food and in private clubs. The issue of private clubs gives the partiality rather an ugly edge. It is not just a question of the strong disappointment of health experts and anti-smoking campaigners. The partial ban suggests an unsure hand and a division in the cabinet, giving the impression that Mr Tony Blair's government is unwilling or unable to impose a total ban. The weakness looks odd: the Republic of Ireland has a total ban, and Northern Ireland and Scotland will be having theirs soon. The defence secretary, Mr John Reid, led the opposition to a total ban. He is a member of parliament from a Scottish constituency, and presumably looks forward to having a healthy electorate under a total ban while looking down his nose at neighbouring constituencies in England with a partial ban. He has confidently declared that the prime minister himself is against a total ban. How much that will say about the government's concern for the public good is uncertain.
The partial ban has thus generated bitternesses beyond the immediate issue. One of the chief concerns is about the number of pubs that will stop serving food to attract the customer who smokes. Ms Hewitt's proposal of separate smoking rooms in pubs might have been a better compromise. The partiality in the ban is likely to give rise to other inequalities. It would be the smaller pubs, especially in the less privileged areas, that would give up serving food to permit smoking. This would mean increasing the difference between the rich and the poor healthwise. Mr Blair's government has been rather silly. It has to either allow people to smoke anywhere they like, or stop them from smoking in each and every public space. There is no middle way in a ban.