Man’s bid to ban smoking in streets, parks and at school gates drove him to despair

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A former councillor who spends his spare time picking up cigarette butts has spoken out about his passion for a street smoking ban.

Alderman Paul Bartlett was ridiculed when he proposed a ban on smoking anywhere in Stony Stratford four years ago.

The venom directed towards him by the public and even some of his own councillors plunged him into depression and exacerbated a string of health problems.

Today the man branded a Health Hitler wonders whether his bid to protect the public was simply ahead of its time.

“The debate on smoking bans has moved on at such a rate that even I could not have wished for. Now there are proposals top ban smoking in cars with children, as well as bans in parks and at school gates,” he said.

But areas around Milton Keynes are still a “carpet of cigarette butts”, said Paul.

He still trawls Stony High Street picking up butts. Recently he collected 614 in twenty minutes - equivalent to £52,000 worth of fines.

Read below for Alderman Bartlett’s first-hand account of how his smoking ban was stubbed out

> ‘Whether one smokes or does not smoke is never off the social and political agenda and neither is where one may smoke. Although it remains a hot topic and I am very unlikely to take on the mantle of a so – called health Hitler as I was called by some four years ago, smoking is still killing the parents of children I know and damaging the health of the children of parents’ I know.

When it comes to smoking, two things are certain: Smoking never improves one’s health and it never improves our environment and yet when I, in all innocence suggested that smoking should be restricted to private commercial outside land, there was such a barrage of physical and verbal abuse and even questions over my mental state, I did so because I genuinely believed then, just as I do now, that the health of people I know and don’t know is important.

Some accused me of being selfish but what is selfish about wanting to save lives? I was told in no uncertain terms where to ‘stick it’ and how. Some of the abuse would have been understandable if it had come from the great intellectuals of modern society and not the likes of Nigel Farage, a pub landlord and some Fleet Street journalists. Indeed, health experts from the US, UK and Australia all backed the idea of a ban. The worst moment was when some of my peers in the community ignored my brain tumour, my concerns over my mother’s dementia and subsequent inability to defend my arguments and those of the medical professeion on smoking and protect my character and made comments that were both derogatory and based on falsehoods. That nearly did push me over the edge but I have now pulled through and it is I that can hold his head up with a clear conscious. Those that supported me know who they are and I say thank you for saving my life.

I have to admit, that although I did not collapse under the pressure and jump off a bridge, there were times when I wondered if it was all worth it. The mental and verbal abuse were worse than being attacked in the street. At one point, I did selfishly think that maybe I should put my own health first. I have a heart condition, was suffering from a condition and killer illness called Cushing’s Syndrome which gave me a brain tumour, diabetes, and made me fat, and uglier, than I already was. Without doubt, the brain tumour affected my mental state and how I approached the smoking ban just as much as it had contributed to the breakdown of my marriage and the eventual inability to carry on my career as an ambulance driver taking the victims of smoking to hospital in London to have their legs amputated because of smoking. They were the lucky ones. Others travelled with me to die surrounded by their grandchildren wondering why grandad wasn’t going to be able to play football in the park any more or mummy take them to after school club. Driving someone to their death bed is not pleasant when it could all have been avoided.

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the smoking ban in CentreMK, introduced by the enlightened CEO, Tony Longstaff in 1996 after I approached him with the idea, the debate on smoking bans has, as I hinted a little earlier, moved on and continues to do so at such a rate that even I could not have wished for. Some, including the former President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Steve Hambleton, who witnessed the high level of smoking in Milton Keynes on a visit to the UK, suggest that I was ahead of the game. Whether I was or not is not important. If limbs and lives can be saved then any moves to reduce the take-up of smoking and the pain of families who have to deal with death or the incapacity of love ones’ and friends, have to be welcomed and need to be taken on board.

When I was striving to save lives a number of things became quite apparent. More people don’t want smoking in our parks and streets than anyone would ever imagine; smoking in public places is not a so-called right and freedom, fought for in the bars of middle England. Those accolades go to pioneers of the right to vote, soldiers of The Somme and protectors of freedom of speech. Trade in our towns is affected more by rain and high commercial rents than smoking or not smoking and losing a limb to diabetes competes on the same level as losing a limb to smoking.

Now, there are proposals to ban smoking in cars with children and more and more calls for bans in parks and outside of school gates (something I wanted outside my childrens’ schools in Stony). Perhaps smoking when pregnant should become a crime against the unborn child; councils to be sued if a child is burnt by a cigarette they pick up off the street; businesses forced to pay a property levy if they allow staff and customers to smoke outside their premises whether on private land or not and housing insurance to be invalid or denied if a fire is caused by a cigarette smoker. This is how my best friend died in 2010 when he fell asleep. Although I never called for a ban on smoking in outside eating areas (shame), I hear more and more from adults unable to enjoy a coffee outside a Costa or a burger with the kids at McDonald’s or an evening drink with friends in the local pub’s garden.

Smoking is a minority activity and yet it interferes with the lives of all who come into contact with it. School children, shoppers, employees, doctors, employers and more. In Milton Keynes there are areas where a carpet of cigarette butts is the norm. Prime spots are around the shopping centre and The Point, Civic Offices and Library, at our wonderful theatre and at every out of town shopping centre. In a recent (literal) sweep of High Street, Stony Stratford, I picked-up £52,190s worth of fines in twenty minutes and yet in the last 24 months’ there have been no prosecutions. Those 614 discarded butts stretch over 16 feet side by side.

Whilst the debates on smoking rage on, so do the deaths with their devastating effects on family life. Personally, I have no grudge against smokers’. I had a long term beautiful girlfriend who still smokes, some of my best friends smoke and my Best Man died because he smoked. It is the habit that I do not like.

Some pet hates of mine that smokers’ have is expelling their waste all over me in a queue; shopkeepers’ inviting me into their shop through their cigarette smoke (no chance); lighting up in a country park right in front of me; expecting me to cross the road to avoid their filthy smoke; inflicting the smell of their clothes as I go to buy my newspaper or travel in a lift; almost throw their butts through my car window where I and my children sit in a vain attempt to keep their car clean; use Zebra crossings to avoid being killed by a car whilst killing themselves with a cigarette.

One day, smoking will have the same social stigma as farting in public, not covering your mouth when yawning and queue jumping.

Society works by a mutual understanding and acceptance of the various rules, guidelines and mores that as individuals we all have and need to pool together. Smoking is not the biggest sin in the world by any stretch of the imagination but it is a major distraction that is a killer and a family heart breaker. It kills one in every two relatives and friends that smoke.

If you are reading this and smoke and you are sitting next to you is your mum who also smokes, one of you will die because of smoking and the other will become too ill to visit their grave. That is a child without a mum or a mum without her child. Just think hard about that. And I have not mentioned the grandchildren who will lose out.

My life has changed since the days of the proposed ban and the removal of my brain (tumour!), I have great daughters’, some good friends, some of whom smoke, my love of and working for MK Dons, a renewed love for community and politics and a new part- time career. Despite bouts of depression that can make a day seem like a sentence spent watching Eastenders’, I feel generally happier now than for many a long time. Despite all of the difficulties faced, I have not turned to drink or smoking or any other vice. When I die it will not be through a self indulgence that we can all avoid. I can be bit too committed and a right so and so, persistent to a fault largely in the aftermath of my tumour and I can discuss an issue with best of them and I do that without the aid of any substances other than the drugs that help to keep me alive and a very strong commitment to the community of Milton Keynes that has been my home since 1984.

Has the debate on smoking bans been stubbed out? The plain answer is no. And why? Because too many lives of our families and friends are relying on the debate continuing. In the past, the debate became as much a debate about my role in it than why there was one. As they say on Dragons Den “I’m out”…..but, I am a committed to life, so and if invited to rejoin the debate, who knows?’