A Guide to UK Smoking Laws

Even with a reasonable understanding of UK legislation concerning smoking, the visitor should look around for ‘No Smoking’ signs before lighting up. If you are the person responsible for putting those signs up however, a more in-depth understanding is required.

For a quick reference to the current laws and updates, for example the position of e-cigarettes, Action on Smoking and Health supplies links to the official documents. ASH is a public health charity established by the Royal College of Physicians in 1971.

The introduction of regulation governing when and where people could smoke was surrounded by passionate debate. Many saw it as an infringement of their civil liberties; few were prepared to admit they had an addiction problem.

People were being forced to confront the truth about smoking. Such was the power of the advertising campaigns of old that it was hard to stop seeing smoking as glamorous, exciting. Film heroes were particularly inclined to smoke, a reflection of the short life expectancy of a soldier on active service in a war. It hardly seems worth worrying about smokers’ cough when there is a chance you will be shot or blown up before the end of the week, and many men at the time had survived just that.

As these risks receded over time, though, the voices of the doctors and surgeons began to be heard. Since the eighteenth century, certain cancers of the mouth and throat had been linked to tobacco smoking. The many adverts promoting tobacco often cited the personal tastes of medics in support of their brand to counter popular concern about health effects. Menthol was added to soothe throat irritation. Filters containing asbestos were a less successful strategy.

Meanwhile, a number of public areas were being made smoke-free, such as the lower floors of double decker buses and on hospital wards. Many people found they preferred the clean air – the choking fug of second hand smoke downstairs on the morning bus can only be imagined these days.

In favor of limiting smoking, the high cost to the National Health Service of treating smoking related diseases was cited. Opponents countered this by pointing out the huge tax revenues derived from tobacco products. The real clincher was the danger to non-smoking bystanders from ‘passive smoking’.

It’s now agreed that exposure to environmental tobacco smoke carries health risks and that this is a problem on a global scale, accounting for 1% of total world deaths. The spirit of the UK smoke-free legislation, and that in many other countries, is aimed primarily at protecting non-smokers from these risks.

The relevant law in England is the Health Act 2006; similar laws are implemented in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The ban on smoking was phased in with NHS and government premises, then introduced in all enclosed public places including bars, restaurants and places of entertainment. All public transport, including stations and enclosed bus stops, is also smoke-free.

However if a structure was not ‘substantially enclosed’ and the risk of inhaling second hand smoke was deemed low, certain premises were exempted such as open air sports stadiums and football grounds. The definition of this concept has been subject to minute analysis, as it also applies to the tents and marquees of the traditional village fair.

If a structure has a roof and under half of it has walls (not including gaps for doors or windows) it is not technically enclosed enough to need to be a smoke-free area. A wedding marquee with only two adjacent walls in place, for example, would be exempt. However, the responsibilities of the tent hire firm or event organisers to post ‘No Smoking’ signs should the weather turn nasty and the remaining walls suddenly need to be put up, are unclear in practise.

Most people play it safe by choosing to impose restrictions on smoking in any place to which the public have access by right or invitation, even in some parks and other entirely outdoor venues. This is why you should check for permission to smoke in a strange place.

Workplaces are also covered by the ban. This is more complex due to their wide variety. The situation in offices is clear cut. These are indoor workplaces and smoking is banned. The company has a legal obligation to put up signs of certain sizes and to enforce the ban. There are fines for not complying.

Landscape gardening is carried on outdoors. The company could legally allow its workers to smoke, until they got into any vehicle used for work. Here, the details of the law need to be consulted. There are ‘No Smoking’ signs to be displayed in vehicles used by more than one person, unless nobody else ever uses it for work.

Workers include volunteers, and people do not have to be using the vehicle at the same time. If it is available at any time for use by more than one person, it must be equipped with the signs. Your personal car is exempt, even if you use it for business, as long as you don’t take passengers while working.

The ‘No Smoking’ logos in a vehicle should be at least 75 mm across to comply with Scottish law. They need to be placed in each area where people can sit. There are fixed penalties for not having the signs on display and fines for failing to prevent smoking in shared work vehicles. Workers are subject to penalties and fines as well if they disregard the law.

In Scotland, the law seems more relaxed on car use but this has not been tested yet. If you are doing business in the UK, however, it’s unlikely that your staff would never be driving in England, so it would be wise to have the signs displayed in company cars. Vans, lorries and taxis are smoke-free in Scotland.

In a block of flats with communal entrances, hallways or stairs, these shared areas are to be smoke free. The landlord needs to put up a sign visible to people coming in the main door. This must bear the ‘No Smoking’ logo and the text ‘No smoking. It is against the law to smoke in these premises’.

The symbol alone is enough in most other areas of the building. Shared bathrooms, kitchens or lounges are also to remain smoke-free. Tenants can smoke within their rooms or flats legally, though rental agreements can require them not to. If you’re staying with friends, it’s always best to ask.

Prospective landlords should refer to advice sites, such as the Landlords’ Handbook.

There are a few exceptions to the general rules. Hotels may have designated smoking rooms, as may nursing homes, prisons and oil rigs. These are all places which could be seen as a temporary home. University halls of residence proved a difficult issue which many establishments have addressed with a blanket ban on smoking on their premises.

If smoking is called for on stage as part of a play, it is allowed – but not in rehearsals! Tobacco shops catering to connoisseurs may let their customers smoke their wares in order to compare quality. Although the Palace of Westminster shared the exemption made for Royal Palaces, members of the Government agreed to restrict smoking within the grounds of Parliament.

The UK smoking laws are enforced at council level, for example the Environmental Health Officers (EHO) in England. Penalties and fines are generally a last resort, warnings and advice being the preferred methods. The regulations are generally popular, though the lack of choice for smokers is still resented when it comes to leisure time.

Non-smokers are now empowered to ask smokers to desist. If there is a problem, they should alert the person responsible for the building, vehicle or area. The appropriate official body to approach is the local council.

Although half of the people in the UK smoked at the end of the Seventies, this was reduced to just over a fifth by 2010. Britain has seen a dramatic reduction in cases of lung cancer as a result.

The Coalition Government has announced that the ban will stand, despite an attempt to exempt private members’ clubs.