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
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
Many landlords now insist that their tenants not smoke
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
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
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
The first claim is groundless.
Prisoners are, in effect, tenants.
The State, as landlord, can and does impose conditions of
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.