Tony Blair has hinted that his government may allow local councils to ban smoking in enclosed public places. This is good news.

But Blair’s usual ally (and my least-favourite British politician), John Reid, has once again said something incredibly stupid. This man, mind you, is the friggin’ health secretary:

Mr Reid said that the middle classes were obsessed with giving instruction to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and that smoking was not one of the worst problems facing poorer people.</p>

“I just do not think the worst problem on our sink estates by any means is smoking, but it is an obsession of the learned middle class,” he said. “What enjoyment does a 21-year-old single mother of three living in a council sink estate get? The only enjoyment sometimes they have is to have a cigarette.”

Read makes two valid points. There really is a diffence between policies that “empower” citizens and top-down proscriptions of individual choice in the name of individuals’ own interests. And of course smoking is not being the biggest problem on Britain’s sink estates. Too bad both these true statements are spurious. They are just populist straw men that misrepresent the actual debate. Those anti-smoking campainers are not especially interested in smoking in sink estates: Their most powerful argument is that smoking should be banned in workplaces like bars and restaurants, where poorly-paid staff have no choice but to inhale second-hand smoke. There’s nothing “nanny state” about this: It’s a pretty standard liberal argument about reducing the harm to captive bystanders caused by individuals’ action in public. Assuming the smoker is an adult, the harm they do to themselves is really only a secondary concern. Funny that a Labour Party minister doesn’t think about it that way; the unions representing those workers do.

If Reid wants to make this a class issue, he should stop patronising working class single mothers and read this paragraph in the Guardian report of his comments:

According to Ash, men in socio-economic groups AB are twice as likely to reach the age of 70 as those in groups DE, with smoking being the biggest contributing factor. Women in social class 5 are almost twice as likely to die from lung cancer as women from social class 1.</p>