Civility and the Law

The Swiss public rejects a nationwide smoking ban

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | October 2012

On Sunday, 23 September, the Swiss voted by a two-thirds majority against a total smoking ban, in some cantons over 70% against. Only in Geneva, with its high percentage of internationals, did a majority of 51.6% vote in favour. Like the Austrians, the Swiss seem to have opted for a complex solution that allows alternative solutions for restauranteurs and bar owners, along with protection from the pompous preaching that seems to inevitably come with a loop-hole free law.

"This reflects an exasperation with state intervention at the expense of individual liberty," wrote the Tribune de Geneve, arguing against what it called ‘social hygenism.’ "The public fears they will increasingly be told how to live, in the name of public health: no alcohol, no cigarettes, no fat, no sugar… Le corset sanitaire has just become too tight."

That’s a switch: These are the same Swiss who have the world’s cleanest water and the strictest – and most effective – source separation laws on domestic waste in all of Europe, laws that make scenes of well-heeled householders taking the daily trek down to the phalanx of tidily-labelled bins at the end of the drive a common sight.

But this time, they seem to have decided that enough is enough. "It’s better not to get too carried away" in matters of this kind, wrote La Liberté of Fribourg. And anyway, the Federal law passed in 2010, had already "proved itself", a point with which there seems to be widespread agreement. Proved itself?

"The public has made a bow to individual responsibility," commented Le Quotidien jurassien, a legal journal based in the Swiss capital of Bern, "and to the notable progress in politeness and civility of which we had long assumed smokers were incapable."

This got my attention: Was it really the smokers who were being impolite? I would have thought the opposite. In many places, anti-smoking laws have unleashed tirades of petty tyranny on the part of the (generally self-appointed) enforcers. Hence my amusement at one British reader on the BBC website this morning: "Which is more annoying and anti-social: smoking or bossing people around?" Indeed.

But of course Le Quotidien jurassien had a point: As long as the right to smoke anywhere at any time was a custom of the culture that went unchallenged, no smoker felt the need to notice how the habit was affecting anyone else. If the others didn’t like it, they could leave.

What seems to have happened in Switzerland is that smokers no longer assume, and as a result, have started paying attention. It’s a return of a sort, to the Victorian custom of gentlemen retiring to the library for an after dinner smoke; and as few women partook, a plea for permission would always precede lighting up.

Because legal remedies are generally required only where good manners fail.

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