Park smoking ban shows how tragically anti-smoking movement lost its way

The latest proposals for tackling smoking are out and, as always, they mimic the authoritarian response in the US.

The London Health Commission, set up by Boris Johnson last year under ex-Labour health minister Lord Darzi, has called on the mayor to make bylaws banning smoking in Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square and exert influence over the royal parks, where he appoints the board, to also ban smoking in their spaces. The clear hope is that London's 32 local councils would then follow his lead and ban smoking in their parks.

Will the mayor play ball? Johnson always prides himself on his instinctive libertarianism, but it's skin deep. His first act as mayor was to ban drinking on public transport. Only weeks ago he was calling for the presumption of innocence to be overturned in certain criminal trials. This week he U-turned on years of pro-immigration rhetoric to call for restrictions of European freedom of movement. He jumps whichever way the wind is already blowing. He said of the plans: "It is time for London to have that debate."

New York, from which the commission clearly based its proposals, has already banned smoking in parks and beaches. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg said this had helped increase life expectancy by three years, but this is as inane a calculation as can be imagined. It is a nonsense, based on so many presumptions about human behaviour as to be meaningless.

Dame Sally Davies, the government’s chief medical officer for England, said the ban would deter young people from smoking. "We all know smoking is bad for health so I welcome any measures to reduce both active smoking and its role-modelling in front of children," she said.

It makes zero sense. If "role-modelling" is harmful in Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square, why isn't it harmful on Whitehall, which links the two? Does some miraculous psychological phenomenon take place for the duration of the street in which children are suddenly unimpressionable?

Lord Darzai appeared on the Today programme to call for London's parks to be turned into theatres of health, where children would only see physically beneficial activities taking place. But his reasoning entails that we ban unhealthy activity, including junk food and alcohol, in all public spaces. It is a vision which has no conception of the limit of state power or the personal freedom of the individual.

In his world, the only legitimate activities are those which leave a good impression on children. He is advocating the purposeful infantilisation of the British public.

Parks are the safest places to smoke in the city. In an otherwise crowded metropolis, they are one of the few areas where you are able to get some personal space. Nowhere could be less likely to contribute to passive smoking.

But anti-smoking campaigners long ago gave up on direct causation in their assessment of smoking harms or their proposals for reducing it. They are engaged in a public relations exercise whereby smoking is made to seem socially intolerable. It is a process of stigmatisation. They choose to single-out and shame, rather than contribute to an evidence-based discussion about physical harm.

They have had limited success in this endeavour. And yet, for reasons which have nothing to do with them, we are entering a golden age of anti-smoking.

E-cigarette technology has revolutionised consumer habits. About 2.1 million adults in Britain currently use them, almost none of whom are non-smokers. A third are ex-smokers and two-thirds current smokers. In 2010, just 8.2% of smokers had tried them. By 2014, it had risen to 50.6%. Walk around a city in the UK and you see vaping shops popping up everywhere, like frozen yoghurt cafes.

They are arguably the single most important development in the history of smoking and they did not come from authoritarian policy, or finger wagging, or sanction, or the prevention of 'role-modelling'. They came from product innovation and the market.

The response of the anti-smoking lobby has been revealing. It has split between the harm minimisation lobby, which has welcomed them, and the puritanical wing, whose assessment of smoking and anti-smoking policy is based on symbolism and imagery, like a Catholicism mass of public health.

The World Health Organisation, which really should know better, called on them to be banned indoors. They could provide no evidence of its harmful effect on others, or indeed on the user herself. They admitted as much when they issued the statement before having reached conclusions from their own research.

This is what UCL researchers had to say:

"For every million smokers who switched to an e-cigarette we could expect a reduction of more than 6,000 premature deaths in the UK each year, even in the event that e-cigarette use carries a significant risk of fatal diseases, and users were to continue to use them indefinitely."

E-cigarettes are extremely effective. The fact elements of the anti-smoking movement are opposing them while lobbying for evidence-free bans on smoking in public shows how tragically they have lost their way. They are willing to put people's lives at risk in order to further the anti-smoking agenda.

Those who wish to reduce smoking should worry about what works, rather than the aesthetics of victory.