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Scott Begbie: How the ban stopped smoking getting right up my nose

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I know that in the teeth of the current pandemic – curse you Covid-19 – it’s hard to remember what a night in the pub was like.

But cast your mind back even further, to 15 years ago and ask what you remember about being out for a pint with pals. No doubt you will bring to mind the banter, the laughs, the “whose round is it?”

However, I will wager you will have forgotten all about the stench of cigarette smoke, the ashtrays full of fag ends and the fact that when you got home you would smell like you were a hardened 40-a-day-man. Hard to stomach if you were a non-smoker, like me.

Smoking in a bar back in 2007.

All of that, brought to a crashing halt by Scotland’s smoking ban in March 2006 – sing hallelujah.

I was an anti-smoking zealot

That piece of legislation did two things. It took our country’s national health forward by light years and it stopped me hating an entire section of the population.

You see, I wasn’t just a non-smoker. I was an anti-smoking zealot. Mainly because in those days the filthy, unhealthy habit was inflicted on me whether I liked it or not.

And I didn’t like it. I grew up in a smoke-filled house. My dad worked his way through packs of Embassy – we used to collect their coupons and get stuff from the catalogue – and my granddad puffed on a pipe.

This was back in the 60s when the anti-smoking drive hadn’t really taken traction. You could tell because us kids could buy candy cigarettes, complete with a red dot to kid on we had the burning glow of taking a draw.

Michael Miller, 5, of Fargo, holds one of his last candy cigarettes in the year North Dakota’s governor signed a bill in 1964 forbidding the sale or possession of candy packaged to resemble cigarettes.

At Christmas, you would be presented with a chocolate “smoking set” – sweeties in the shape of pipes, cigarette packs and boxes of matches. Anyone else remember the “tobacco pouches” of stuff that looked like pipe baccy and tasted of coconut?

Everyone on the telly smoked. Even on news programmes.

Remember when smoking was allowed on the top deck of a bus?  That’s where the tough kids went on the way home from school.

A smoking cinema audience at the opening of the international film festival at the Lido in Venice, Italy 1950.  Front row from left Robert Taylor (cigarette in mouth), his wife Barbara Stanwyck, Mervyn Le Roy, Jean Simmons and director Gabriel Pascal.

How about the heady days when smoking was allowed in cinemas – but only on the right-hand side. Funnily enough, it didn’t stop a pall forming where you could see the light from the projector making its way to the screen.

Couldn’t ever escape smoking

With all that subliminal messaging it’s a minor miracle I didn’t join in. I think it was listening to my dad and granddad coughing and hacking in the morning that made me think it wasn’t a great idea.

But while I didn’t ever smoke, I couldn’t ever escape it, especially as I got older. In pubs you had to just accept the fact people smoked around you. That was how it was.

But in restaurants? C’mon. Sure, there were smoking and non-smoking sections. It was just a pity that the carcinogenic trail from the tip of someone’s Benson & Hedges couldn’t read the signs.

Diners smoking in the restaurant.

There was nothing worse than picking up your knife and fork to tuck into a delicate, tender dish with its fragrant sauce than having the selfish fool at the table virtually next to you, push away his empty dish, sit back and spark up a fag between courses. Usually blowing it in your direction.

Actually, what was worse when they were doing it when the kids were wee and you could watch your precious offspring being enveloped in a cloud of second-hand chemicals.

Eastgate Centre, Inverness, the week before a smoking ban came into effect.

I lost count of the number of times I had to ask: “Excuse me, would you mind not smoking just now”.

Most often, you would get a tut and sneer, but they would realise that polluting children’s lungs wasn’t the best idea. But sometime it did lead to sharp exchanges. Not what you need on a relaxing night out.

It was the arrogance

And that was the nub of the matter and the source of my then detestation of smokers. It was their belief they should be allowed to light up whenever and wherever, no matter the impact on anyone else around them.

Two men smoking in The Oval Bar on Middle Abbey Street, Dublin, Ireland, before a ban on smoking in the work place commences.

Their need for nicotine rode roughshod over anyone else’s right to clean air. It was the arrogance that got me.

You want to muck up your lungs, damage your heart and shorten your life… on you go. Just don’t drag me and mine along with you. Your right to smoke doesn’t trump my right to health.

Admittedly, by the time the smoking ban came in there had been a sea-change in public attitudes that had been building over decades.

No Smoking Please! It annoys the ladies. Display advertisement at a silent era movie, 1925.

By 2006, the national mood was one of “that’ll do Smokey Joes, that’ll do”.

There were, of course, hardened smokers who said they would defy the ban. No one did.

Unintended consequences of ban

Instead, they got used to the idea every so often they would just have to gather up their paraphernalia and head outside. One unintended consequence of the smoking ban is you can now get the measure of a boozer by the sort of people standing outside having a fag. I’ve dodged a few places using that metric.

Regular customer Dave Gibbs has a smoke outside The Holburn.

Meanwhile, the rest of us just heaved a sigh of relief in clean air. Well, once we got over the fact that pubs didn’t smell of smoke. They smelled of stale booze and BO. Even that quirk diminished quickly. Don’t know if it was because we all got nose blind or if sales of deodorant rocketed.

Today, we all take it for granted that no one smokes inside. A trip abroad (remember those) where it still happens is a shock to our delicate systems and reminds us we are all better for the ban. And good on the Scottish Government for its goal of creating a tobacco-free generation by 2034.

But I still toast the day the prohibition came in – and I haven’t given smokers a second thought since. Live and let live – but you will live longer if you don’t.

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