The Wiki Man

Why we’ll never go back to smoking indoors

The smoking ban is an example of legislation that worked by changing behaviour

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

What would happen, I wonder, were we to rescind the smoking ban as Nigel Farage wants? My guess is not much. Most restaurants would keep the existing rules. Some pubs might set aside a room for smokers. Casinos, comedy clubs and jazz clubs might revert to the status quo ante. But would we return to a time where people routinely smoked everywhere? Unlikely. People have had the chance to experience a new version of normal, and in large part they prefer it.

You wouldn’t expect me to say this, but I think the legislation has to be considered good precisely because, even if it were abolished, much of the behaviour it created would stick. The same goes for seatbelt legislation. The law was normative — it served to create new habits and conventions which then became self-sustaining.

Good laws can make a habit easier to adopt by making it universal (the Greek word for ‘law’ — nomos — also means ‘custom’ or ‘social norm’. And even obviously sensible behaviours can be hard to adopt when they are abnormal. The only time I never wear a seatbelt is in the back of a London taxi: this is because buckling up in a cab is counter to the norm. Yet if there is one place you should wear seatbelts, it is in a black cab, where any sudden deceleration will hurl you five feet forwards into the glass partition.


In the same way, many norms work only when everyone conforms to them. Think of the white lines in a car park. Though purist Libertarians might claim these interfere with your right to park at the diagonal, everyone generally obeys them. This conformity matters, since if only one person parks across two bays, the entire system breaks down. Often such ‘rules’ are enforced more by social pressure than law.

An interesting instance where a useful norm has been established in one country but has failed to take hold elsewhere is the case of the German Reißverschlussverfahren, or ‘zipping directive’. This is a practice established in Germany where, at a contraflow or anywhere else where two traffic lanes converge into one, car drivers queue in parallel before taking strict turns to merge at a single defined point. This significantly reduces delays and accidents. Yet the Dutch have tried to introduce it and repeatedly failed. No one is quite sure why — especially since Dutch drivers have no problem adopting the habit in Germany. I have a hunch that inculcating this habit in Britain might be harder still: Brits have a strong cultural urge to merge lanes early to avoid the appearance of queue-jumping (which ranks only slightly below paedophilia in our pantheon of shame).

I learned about the Reißverschlussverfahren from reading Complexity and the Art of Public Policy by David Colander and Roland Kupers. They suggest that complexity theory and agent-based models — which take account of things like norms and culture in a way that standard economic models don’t — should be used to break the deadlock between the ‘market fundamentalist’ and ‘government control’ narratives in politics.

The interesting thing about a complexity-based approach is that, while it sounds geeky, it is actually creatively liberating. A complex model of the world is not only more accurate, it is also more open-minded about where it draws inspiration for its ideas — not only from standard economics, but from everywhere: the humanities, evolutionary biology, even traffic management.

The most commonly voiced complaint about politics is that ‘politicians sound like they don’t live in the real world’. Complexity theorists would say there is a good reason for this: they don’t.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • EUSSR

    This article is not only very boring, but it also reads like it has been written by someone on work experience.

    • Damaris Tighe

      I glazed over when we got to the bit about the German rei-thingummy.

  • Fergus Pickering

    I don’t see why I shouldn’t smoke in my own house, drink in my own house, hold mad bisexual orgies in my own house, or do anything at al in my own house that is not against the law. Its my house, isn’t it? It’s bloody difficult smoking my Sunday cigar if it’s raining.

    • Freedom

      You like bisexual orgies? Ewwwwww. I like hetero men: the real deal, uncompromised.

      • Fergus Pickering

        I don’t like orgies of any kind. Nothing too much is my motto. Besides, I’m far too old. Dead and in flagrante. Not a dignified way to go, dignity being the vogue word.

        • Freedom

          I’m relieved to hear it!

  • Augustus

    Quite frankly, I don’t see the point of ordering a coffee and a good XO Cognac, selecting a nice Partagas, carefully cut and presented by the sommelier, and then having to leave the table to enjoy one’s after dinner degustation because of some so-called ‘social pressure’.

    • Freedom

      Smoke and fine drink don’t really go together. Surely it’s one or the other, and I know what I choose.

  • Gwangi

    A false argument here: already many people had quit smoking so smokers were in a dwindling minority of 25% or less. Then the smoking ban came in. Correlation does NOT equal causation – the ban did not make people stop smoking!
    The absurd thing is that now passive smoking is more of a risk because people stay at home and smoke in enclosed spaces with their children breathing that smoke. The effects of passive smoking in bars etc are negligible – the largest study ever from UCLA over 40 years showed that the public’s belief that passive smoking is a terrible health danger is simply not true. The one population group to which passive smoking is a risk are children exposed to smoke a lot – ie at home. All bans on smoking in bars, workplaces, and now even cars, encourage that so do more harm than good.
    I am that rare species: someone who smoked for 2 decades then gave up for good (8 years ago) but who has not because an anti-smoking fascist. That is because I am tolerant and open-minded. Having said that, I think no smoking on trains and theatres etc is a good thing, just because of the smell (oh how I wish they’d ban disgusting women’s hairspray and perfume too – and people who eat stinking food in workplaces like oranges or spicy concoctions!)

  • Henry Hill

    I think the big problem here is that it’s nearly impossible to predict how social trends would develop post ban.

    Consider this: a century ago, cigarettes were illegal in more than 20 US states and the public-health authoritarians of the age were gearing up for an even greater prize: prohibition. The people who passed the Eighteenth Amendment were targeting a socially acceptable, socially expensive substance, hoping to deprive it of the former to solve the latter. They undoubtedly felt their cause had an historical inevitability to it, too. But prohibition would collapse and the golden age of tobacco was yet to dawn.

    In short, puritanism is not a gradually rising historical trend. It fluctuates over time, and the confident pronouncements of people about the permanence of their cultural norms nearly always look faintly absurd to posterity.

    The short-term effects of repeal would undoubtedly be fairly minor – but there is no reason to suspect they would stay that way. A society without the prohibition on consuming and advertising tobacco is a society whose attitudes on tobacco are going to shift.

    It might be generational in its timeframe – the organic evolution of the behaviour of free people is, inevitably, much slower than the handbrake turns of government bans – but there’s no reason to think society’s current attitude toward tobacco is permanent. This is especially true when you consider that our stance on other substances is growing increasingly liberal.

    Future generations could well look back on the turn of the third millenium as a repressive, socially judgemental period of history, as remote to their experience as the gangster-ridden Twenties are to ours.

  • Freedom

    And then there’s French, moeurs: manners, or morals, or both.

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