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Is Britain ready for outdoor smoking bans?

As Brighton considers a ban, smokers and non-smokers in Bristol give their verdict on a trial scheme already up and running

Steven Morris

The idea of not being able to light up even in the open air gives Jo, a 30-a-day smoker from Bristol, the heebie-jeebies. “I wouldn’t be able to survive,” she said. “I’d have to find somewhere. It’s an addiction for me, not fun. I’d have to bring my car into work and smoke there. I’ve tried to give up a few times but I just can’t. A total ban just wouldn’t be fair.”

A ban on smoking in public open spaces is on the agenda after Brighton city council announced that it is to consult on such a measure in its parks and beaches.

Two harbour-side squares in Bristol are ahead of the game, trialling a voluntary ban, politely asking smokers to take their habit (or addiction) elsewhere. The move seems to be having some success though Jo, huddled in a shelter on one of the squares involved, was not aware of the ban. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it. I’m glad I didn’t know.”

When the Guardian visited at lunchtime on Tuesday there were few people openly smoking in the squares or on the al-fresco bar and restaurant tables – though workers in high-vis jackets were scooping hundreds of butts off the pavements following the weekend’s Bristol Harbour Festival.

One of the few smokers spotted was Peter Skirrow, a 26-year-old office worker, who was strolling in the sunshine with a roll-up. He admitted he did know about the voluntary scheme and still exercised his right to smoke but did not get close to anyone else. “I make sure I’m not close to children or people eating and I don’t smoke in queues. But I don’t think I do any harm to others by smoking outside.”

Smokers’ group Forest is furious both at the idea of a ban in Brighton and the voluntary scheme in Bristol. “Outdoor smoking bans make no sense,” said its director, Simon Clark. “There’s no evidence of risk to non-smokers and if the idea is to stop children seeing adults light up why ban smoking in adult-friendly pubs and clubs, forcing people to smoke outside?

“Litter can be a problem but it’s not helped by councils removing cigarette bins for fear it ‘normalises’ smoking. They can’t have it both ways. Provide cigarette bins and most smokers will use them.

“Smokers don’t need self-righteous campaigners regulating their behaviour. You’ll always get a few inconsiderate smokers but that’s no reason to punish the overwhelming majority. We’re in danger of creating an incredibly censorious society in which regulations are based not on potential harm to others but on people’s personal preferences. It’s worrying and it has to stop.”

Kate Knight, the deputy director of Smokefree South West, which is behind the Bristol scheme, said early research suggested a third of smokers who were aware of the scheme did change their behaviour. The six-month pilot ends next month but Knight hopes it will continue in some form and that other places will introduce similar schemes.

The approach here is softly-softly. Eleven signs dotted around the squares ask smokers not to light up and thank people for helping “keep Bristol smoke-free, healthy and clean”. Bars have been invited to ask their customers not to smoke and at events such as the Harbour Festival teams have gone around Millennium Square and Anchor Square explaining the ban to smokers and wondering if they can stub their cigarettes out or wander off.

Friends Jenni O’Connor and Jenny Brindley were in Millennium Square watching their children clamber over the statue of one of the most famous Bristolian actors, Cary Grant, often photographed posing cigarette in hand.

“I think there has been a reduction in smoking here,” said O’Connor. But Brindley said she did not support complete bans backed by the law. “That would be too much. I don’t like to see things being banned. It becomes a civil rights issue.”

Marton Modis, manager of the Las Iguanas restaurant and bar on Millennium Square, said staff had been asked to tell customers about the ban. Most respected it – though the restaurant still provides ashtrays in one section of its outdoor seating.

“I think it has changed things a bit but you won’t change it completely unless the law is changed,” he said. “That’s what people think the next step is really. I’m for it – but then I’m a non-smoker. I know a lot of people won’t be happy if they are told they could be breaking the law if they smoke.”

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