Just over two years ago, after smoking in public buildings had been banned in Scotland, but not yet in England, I had a drink in a London pub with a friend down from Glasgow. She started giggling at our fellow customers puffing on cigarettes with their pints. “That probably looks normal to you now,” she said, “but in a few months’ time, it will seem completely bizarre. You won’t believe people ever did it.”
She was right. As someone whose smoking career ended in a cacophony of spluttering after half a cigarette at the age of 11, I had always secretly envied smokers their air of grace, confidence and sophistication. As teenagers, they seemed to have solved the eternal problem of what to do with your hands when in company. By my twenties and thirties, nearly all the cool people I knew smoked. Yet two years on from the ban in England, smoking has begun to look not enticingly risqué as you might have expected, but merely comical. Those sheepish huddles of smokers outside office buildings, pubs and restaurants do not look at all like the sort of group one would wish, even subliminally, to be part of.
Even smokers I have discussed this with (and there are not many of them left) laugh at the idea that it was once acceptable to burn tubes of dried narcotic leaves not only in places of entertainment but at work. Health considerations aside, the habit, which 50 years ago was practised by the majority of men and over 40 per cent of women, has come to seem at the very least, quaint.
Even the incessant smoking in the superb TV series Mad Men, set on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, appears infantile and insecure rather than stylish. How has smoking been made to look not only anti-social but odd and silly by an act of government when decades of campaigning by doctors and public figures like sportsmen had little impact? Such offences as soft drug-taking, speeding and cheating the authorities in any number of ways retain, if not a cachet, then a scintilla of acceptability. Witness the admiration President Barack Obama garnered when admitting to inhaling in his pot-head days, adding disarmingly, “That was the point.”
There is only one other example of legislation apparently so shaping attitudes, and doing so at such speed. This was the way the race relations laws led in a very few years to racist views seeming little more than deviant. Tails don’t generally wag dogs and while laws affect behaviour, they don’t normally mould attitudes. It seems, though, that there are times when what could be seen by libertarians as quite intrusive, paternalist lawmaking will strike a chord with the public.
They are the instances when people see the common sense behind bossiness. Like racism, smoking in public must have seemed fundamentally senseless to more of us than anyone realised when it was all the fashion. Future generations will, I suspect, see both as just plain weird.