Kicking the habit

One of the country's most successful health campaigns has been that which has placed the smoking of tobacco beyond acceptable social behaviour.

It has been a long campaign fought over many decades and the transformation of what was a common habit into one in which the participants are, in effect, outcasts, has worked because the medical evidence of the harm smoking can do has been so convincing.

The phenomenon of the smoke-free workplace is now so widespread as to be unworthy of comment; in general terms, the community appears to have welcomed the opportunity to dine in restaurants and the like without polluted air; similarly, theatres and other public venues are largely "smoke-free", as indeed will be the Forsyth Barr Stadium.

While people may still smoke outdoors, that, too may be about to change with efforts to restrict smoking in public places still further here and overseas.

The one place where people can still smoke is the private home, but even here changes may be observed: in many households, the smokers are asked to smoke outside, and visitors so inclined likewise invited to keep the interior air pure.

Many landlords now insist that their tenants not smoke inside.

With this background, it may have surprised some readers to learn that the inmates of our prisons are permitted to smoke, including in their cells, unlike in Canada, some British prisons, and those in some Australian states, where the practice is banned.

The intention of the Minister of Corrections to ban smoking in our jails from July next year is certainly easily justified on health grounds alone, and the overseas precedent suggests the fears being raised here by vested interests are largely groundless.

It is, however, somewhat speculative to suggest, as the minister has attempted, that the major grounds for the introduction of the ban are health and safety.

Clearly, other factors have been at work.

One is the decision to introduce "double-bunking" in single cells.

This creates problems of the rights of non-smoking prisoners not to be confined to cells with smokers.

The possibility of inmates suing the Corrections Department over second-hand smoke is real and complaints have reportedly already by made to the Human Rights Commission.

The same risk can be claimed by non-smoking prison staff.

The use of tobacco and other drugs as bargaining tools within prisons by prisoners and guards is well-known and of long standing; a ban will assist in stamping out the practice and is consistent with the policy of prohibiting drug use.

There are also dangers from permitting cigarette lighters and matches to be used within the prison environment.

The Government will certainly be cognisant of political support for the measure.

Objectors have raised two main issues: the right of prisoners to smoke in what is effectively their "own home"; and the potential for violent reaction from prisoners required to cease smoking.

The first claim is groundless.

Prisoners are, in effect, tenants.

The State, as landlord, can and does impose conditions of use.

Additionally, prisoners who do not smoke - and prison guards - are entitled to not be confined in conditions where their own health may be damaged by second-hand smoke.

The department has anticipated prisoner reaction by giving a year's notice of the measure, and by its intention to offer a cessation programme, including nicotine replacements, for those who seek such help.

That approach is not unreasonable.

The fact that a relatively high proportion of prison staff also smoke - and will be able to continue to smoke in areas away from prisoners - suggests the cessation programme should also be offered to them with the intention of banning all smoking within prison precincts.

The smoking ban, like any other restrictions imposed on prisoners, is a policy that will require great effort by the staff to implement a drug-free regime, with additional careful monitoring; the potential advantages to prisoners and to staff, as well as the cost savings to taxpayers, are so far in excess of the presumed disadvantages as to require a determination by the department to ensure its success.

However, such a measure cannot be seen in isolation from the need to respond to other pressing needs within the prison service, such as adequate protection for staff against assault, and more habilitation services for inmates, including expanded work-related schemes.

The proposed ban is undoubtedly a punitive measure, but that is largely what prisons are for.