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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 May 2007, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Sign of the times
Sales of signs have gone sky high

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

No smoking signs, get used to them because they'll be everywhere from 1 July. But this simple sign is causing controversy. Why?

Buckingham Palace has to, so does 10 Downing Street, and even St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. When it comes to the no smoking symbol, the ban on lighting up in enclosed public places is very democratic.

The ban will become nationwide when it is introduced in England on 1 July, cementing the sign's standing as one of the most used and most recognised nationally and internationally.

Must be in colour
Must be A5 size
Must be a minimum of 70mm in diameter
Must read: No smoking
But while the symbol may be simple, a single burning cigarette enclosed in a red circle with a diagonal red bar from upper left to lower right, it is causing controversy. But what has made it such a heated issue?

Instantly recognisable from Grimsby to Timbuktu, the sign is based on what is known as the "universal prohibition sign" or the "universal no". It is one of the oldest and most widely recognised signs in the world.

Behind its success is years of hard work, research and international negotiation by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

It sets the worldwide standard for everything from "mind your head" signs to the nuts and bolts that keep a Boeing 747 in the air. It is a niche of product regulation that is a mystery to average folk, but affects our lives nearly every second of every day.

'Heavy handed'

A panel of representatives from across the world decides - and regularly reviews - the international guidelines for no-smoking signs, including size, shape, colour and overall design. It takes its job very seriously, especially prohibition signs like the smoking one.

"These signs started out as a symbol for danger, but their meaning has extended over the years to cover warnings and bans," says Barry Gray, chair of the ISO's international technical committee 145, which is in charge of the signs.

On 1 July, smoking in enclosed public places will be banned across the UK
Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales already have such a ban; England's ban starts 1 July
The Magazine will count down the weeks with a series of articles about the impact of the ban on life in Britain

"It's extremely important what we agree because endorsing signs banning anything just waters down the safety message. There is currently huge debate about what are genuine issues of public safety and what's just about convenience."

And this is where the controversy starts. The government has decided on a new design for no-smoking signs and it also wants them put at the entrance of every enclosed public space - regardless of what the building is.

The approach has caused concern in the ISO. The design tweaks may not be noticeable to most - the smoke rises slightly higher than before and the cigarette angle is different - but they break ISO guidelines. They have been passed by the ISO and EU, but they cannot be classed as being the international standard.

And making it law that a sign has to be displayed at the entrance of all enclosed public spaces has been criticised as "heavy handed".

Puff in pews

"We don't understand why the government wanted to make the changes, and plastering the signs over all these buildings is just overkill," says Mr Gray.

"Evidence suggests that people switch off when there is information overload. What if someone tunes out after seeing three signs that are irrelevant and misses the fourth one that is extremely important?"

Woman on train
The message remains the same

According to the Department of Health no-smoking signs are not required to meet specific British Standards, but rather EU standards - which the new signs do. Likewise, the no-smoking signs required under the new smokefree law are not safety signs and therefore do not need to meet health and safety regulations.

"The experience in other countries has shown that signs are a crucial part of implementing and enforcing smokefree legislation," says a spokeswoman. "No-smoking signs will provide clear communication with smokers so that they are aware where smoking is not permitted."

But the ISO is not the only organisation unhappy about the signs and their placement. Church leaders have lambasted the regulations. They say occasional problems in churches include people eating and wanting to bring in pets - not puffing on a cigarette in the pews.

The Bishop of Fulham describes the new rules as "stark, staring mad," and the Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev Colin Slee, says the legislation is "daft".

Huge orders

"The government is treating churches as the same as every other public building, when they're not," says a spokesman for the Anglican Church.

He has a point, the Church of England owns the largest number of Grade I listed buildings in the UK. Leaders have been working with the government to find a solution and it's been decided that signs do not have to be permanently fixed to the fabric of the church - a poster on the notice board or a sign in a portable stand will do.

But for others the ban is a great opportunity - sign companies have seen sales go sky high.


"When it comes to health and safety signs, this is the biggest thing ever to have happened in the industry," says Chris Baudains, managing director of First Safety Signs.

Before bans were introduced in the UK, sales of smoking signs made up about 15% of sales - now they account for 70%. The company recently had an order for 40,000 signs from just one business.

"It's very unusual to get an order of that size," said Mr Baudains. "We expect things to get even busier in the run up to the ban in England. Financially it's going to be a good year."

But while the symbols might not be the most loved, sign companies are doing their best to make them as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Classier establishments can get them in brass and there is even a no-smoking mosaic on offer.

If you've taken a photo of the new no-smoking sign in your area you can send it to yourpics@bbc.co.uk or text them to 61124

Below is a selection of your comments.

This country has a huge number of rules & regulations that must be obeyed. Do they all have to be displayed on a sign? No, of course not. So why have the idiots decided that No Smoking requires a sign?
Mike Strand, Leicester

If something is banned everywhere, why do we have to be reminded of it all the time? It's like having signs up saying "No Murder" or "No Stealing" - totally unnecessary because everyone knows they are not allowed. All this is another measure to keep bureaucrats happy, from a government obsessed with bureaucracy.
Darren Goodsell, Tunbridge Wells, UK

I very much agree with the point regarding information overload. Not only would this blanket signage be unsightly and wasted expense, it will reduce the effectiveness of genuine safety (e.g. fire safety) notices. I think that people will grasp the concept of "enclosed public space" and limited signage can be used for those places where there appears to be confusion.
David, Frodsham

Typical twisted logic!! why have millions of "No Smoking" signs everywhere, when really Smoking should be banned in all public places apart from area's displaying a "Smoking Permitted" sign. The general rule being that you can't smoke anywhere unless it says you can!
simon mason, Blackpool Lancashire

What on earth has prompted bishops and vicars to get involved in this? Enacting the most important public health legislation in a century is not "stark, staring mad".
Steve, Coventry

Making all of these A5 sized colour plastic signs isn't very environmentally sound, is it?
Rob G, Leeds

I am not sure what the fuss is about concerning these signs. As long as they are clearly seen and are obviously stating 'No Smoking' then that should be good enough. Traditional smoking venues such as pubs and clubs should have them clearly displayed but would you ever dream of smoking in a church or cathedral even if no sign was being displayed? Political correctness is to blame I think.
David Addis, Exeter

Not only churches but old Rolls-Royces used for weddings must also have no smoking signs inside "each compartment", so with a division it is one in the front and one in the rear. Nice in the wedding photos. Definitely overkill, this is an all-embracing law so why the necessity for signs? No signs banning us from murder, rape and pillage, but they are also against the law.
Peter Williams, Colchester

I wonder how much it cost to re-design the sign to have a different angle cigarette and slightly higher smoke. More tax-payers money well spent?
Oliver Finn, Katwijk, Netherlands

Having signs stuck all over everywhere is little more than government authorised graffiti. As it will be illegal to smoke in nearly every building, surely it would be much more sensible to show signs where smoking is allowed.
Vic Winstanley, Croydon, UK

Is this story for real? In the run up to the smoking ban our wonderful, meddling government has decided on a new No Smoking sign and decreed that half the country should be blighted with them? Gnarrrr! I can't stand it. Surely everybody knows what a building is and - whether we like it or not - also knows that from July 1st smoking is banned in public buildings and workplaces. Why do they have to rub our noses in it with their ugly, petty, smug little shiny, shiny notices at every doorway? Just how stupid do they think we are? How patronising are they?! Why don't they just tattoo a No Smoking sign to our foreheads at birth along with our "voluntary" ID card details in bar-code form. This is the beginning of the end of freedom of thought. I'm leaving toytown UK for a grown-up country where people are trusted to make decisions, know the law of the land and think for themselves. Alias Winston Smith.
Richard Marshall, London UK

This is the nanny state gone mad. Some of us feel that smoking in public places should have been banned years ago, but this signage requirement is idiotic. Our office has had a no smoking policy for 8 years, and nobody breaks the rule - but now we have to put up a sign to prove it. What does this achieve? It is more unsightly visual clutter, and unnecessary bureaucracy - local inspectors are required to check that the signs are in place. Insisting on putting them on historic and listed buildings, and places of worship is certainly "stark, staring mad." Why not signs for "no spitting", or "no bank robbery" or "no assaulting policemen" while we are about it? Suggestions anyone?
Nigel Jackson, Poole

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