There is, to the uneducated observer, little evidence of a spitting epidemic in Enfield. On the bustling north London high street, people go about their business without having to avoid hazardous globules of phlegm. No audible hacking can be heard above the sound of the traffic.
However, at the end of the month, Enfield could become the first UK borough for 22 years to outlaw spitting, after thousands of residents backed a petition calling for a halt — once and for all — to the unseemly habit.
Despite the lack of any obvious spittle, the people of Enfield seem almost unanimously in favor.
“They should be put in prison and given a ￡500 [US$785] fine — it’s unsightly, unhygienic and unsocial,” said John White, 60, a gardener.
His wife, Mary, 61, suggested the problem was more widespread in the borough than it appeared to outsiders.
“I just saw someone do it and it made me feel sick,” she said, adding that she thought it was a much greater problem than in the past. “The problem is, these days people have got no manners.”
Chris Bond, a councilor, said pressure from local residents was driving the call for a ban, which could be imposed after the council asked the government for permission to reimpose a bylaw that was dropped in the 1990s.
The council was told that a petition was needed to prove public support for the measure and soon more than 3,700 residents had signed up.
Finding someone in Enfield who is against the plan is something of a struggle.
The mere mention of spitting sent 15-year-old Tyler Black into a paroxysm.
“Urrrggghhh, it’s so off-putting. It’s absolutely disgusting,” she said, adding that it was obvious why street spitting was mainly perpetrated by boys: “Well, they are disgusting, aren’t they?”
Spitters would be handed a penalty of about ￡80, with the threat of a prosecution and a maximum ￡5,000 fine if they refuse to pay.
The UK ban on spitting — introduced after World War I to prevent the spread of tuberculosis (TB) — was dropped in 1990 because low levels of the disease could no longer justify its existence, but many of the older generation in Enfield think that was a mistake.
“You never used to see it when we were growing up. You’d get a clip around the ear,” said Jean Clench, 76. “It’s filthy; you can get TB from it.”
However, for some residents the ban goes too far.
“Sometimes you can’t help it. What if you’ve got a bad cough?” asked Kole Tshibangu, 45. “Maybe they just need money, but they should find some other way of getting it.”
Hashim Haroon and Darnish Din, both 16, did not think the ban would make much difference.
“In our generation there are a lot of rebellious people, I don’t think this generation will really care,” Hashim said.
Darnish added: “And, you know, not many people have a tissue in their pocket these days.”
Bond brushed off suggestions that the new bylaw would be popular in theory, but unenforceable in practice.
“Spitting is antisocial and can be very intimidating, and lots of people find it upsetting,” he said. “Taking this action sends out the right message — hopefully, if people know about the law, we shouldn’t have to enforce it.”