Javier Marías, is the author, most recently, of “Your face tomorrow” (THE NEW YORK TIMES. 22/01/06):
FOR far too many years, almost 40, the people of Spain were treated like minors by Franco’s dictatorship. But it seems that some people among us still yearn for that era. The new antismoking law in Spain, which went into effect with the new year and bans smoking in workplaces and restricts it in many bars and restaurants, is a case in point: it is a clear example of the state trying to regulate citizens’ private lives and customs. As such, it is a measure that is far more befitting of Franco than a democracy.
Now, I should say immediately that I am a smoker, like nearly a third of my fellow Spaniards, and I’ve never tried to quit. I know smoking isn’t good for my health, but neither is walking in the polluted streets of Madrid or Barcelona, nor is living in a world where the United States refuses to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol.
Many of my friends are smokers too; many are not. But we have always managed to come to terms by asking if anyone minds our smoking – without the government’s intervention.
Of course, nonsmokers should not be subjected to secondhand smoke nor obliged to suffer its effects, and in this vein, limits should be placed on smokers in enclosed, common-use spaces. But the government’s argument that it is seeking to improve public health is hypocritical. The Spanish Treasury takes in colossal revenues, direct and indirect, thanks to this pernicious habit. Every time the government needs to find a way to finance some exceptional expense, a new cigarette tax is levied. The implicit message to Spanish citizens is this: “Smoke! Smoke more – so we can balance our budget.”
Indeed, to escape the taint of hypocrisy, Spain would have to match its new antismoking measures with an array of others fighting everything else in the world that is at all harmful. Nowhere have I ever heard, for example, that cars are obliged to carry, just above the driver’s-side door, a warning, like those on cigarette boxes, that “Driving a car may cause death, grisly amputations, quadriplegia and involuntary manslaughter.”I have also never seen anyone lay blame on sunbathers who go to the beach and almost drown, or mountain climbers who get lost and fall off cliffs, and whose rescue incurs a tremendous expense and endangers the lives of others. Nobody is forcing anyone to swim in the ocean or climb mountains, just as nobody is forcing smokers to smoke, and yet the latter are regarded practically as criminals.
People should be allowed to make decisions about their health as they see fit, even if that means undermining it. To keep someone from smoking on the job, if he or she has a private office where smoking does not endanger or annoy anyone, is an unacceptable act of paternalism.
As far as bars and restaurants are concerned, the ban is thankfully not absolute: in the end – after tremendous protests and battles over the law, that is – in establishments of less than 1,100 square feet (spaces that are too small to be divided into smoking and nonsmoking areas), the owner can decide if the place will be smokefree or not. This way each citizen can decide whether or not to enter – and I, for one, will not go to a restaurant where I can’t smoke. So far, it seems that the majority of these smaller bars and restaurants will opt to allow their clients to blow as many smoke rings as they care to, for fear of losing them.
Most probably, the Spanish people, rather civically minded in general, will not have too much trouble complying with the law, basically because it is only partly abusive and irrational. But watch out: the government is also trying to lower alcohol consumption and, in an unprecedented move, to alter the country’s traditional schedule. People in Spain continue to eat lunch around 2:30, and to dine around 10 in the evening; we go to bed late. Efforts to make us more like the rest of the world in that regard strike a blow at the very essence of Spanishness: should our schedules change, we’ll be much more like France or Switzerland – and definitely more boring.
A totalitarian state is one that sticks its nose where it doesn’t belong and attempts to intervene in every aspect of its citizens’ private lives, and many governments today, whether left, right or center, have developed this practice of behaving like busybodies. The old notion that only dictatorships can be totalitarian seems terribly naïve nowadays. And that is the worst thing about this antismoking law and others of the same ilk: they unfortunately prove that totalitarianism is no longer incompatible with the democratic systems that once guaranteed our freedoms.