Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2003

* Stubbing Out the Pub? *

A total smoking ban would spell disaster for the British pub

IT WAS NO SURPRISE that the State of California was the first territory in the world to impose a total ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. Earlier this year, New York City followed suit, and the Irish Republic looks likely to join them next year, although what impact it will have in their notoriously smoky pubs remains to be seen.

Now thereís a serious chance of the same happening in the UK. Labour MP Gareth Thomas has proposed a private memberís bill that would ban smoking wherever food is served. While this bill stands little chance of success, there is a strong possibility that a similar amendment will be tacked on to the Licensing Bill that is currently going through Parliament. A ban anywhere food is served would immediately affect most pubs, and would set a strong precedent for the minority of premises that were not covered.

The main justification for a ban is that it will protect people from ďpassive smokingĒ. Yet there is no convincing scientific evidence that environmental tobacco smoke has any significant effect on health, despite all the efforts of the anti-smoking lobby to find it. Indeed the renowned medical academic Professor Sir Richard Doll, who first established the link between smoking and lung cancer, has gone on record as saying he personally isnít concerned about it. Other peopleís smoke may be unpleasant and irritating, but it isnít deadly.

If thereís a demand for no-smoking areas, then obviously itís in the interest of licensees to provide them, and a large and growing number of pubs of all kinds offer that facility. But to insist that all pubs must be completely smoke-free is something else entirely. It may not make much difference to chain dining pubs, but there can be no doubt that it would have a dramatic impact on the trade of smaller traditional locals that donít major on food.

Although less than a third of adults in the UK are smokers, observation suggests that they make up a much higher proportion of pub customers, particular amongst regular visitors rather than those who call in once or twice a month. By definition, anyone who is fastidiously concerned about health will not only avoid tobacco but also not spend much time drinking in pubs. Even those who donít smoke themselves will very often go to the pub with smoking friends or colleagues - itís relatively rare to see an entirely non-smoking group.

It is impossible to believe that the many regulars who are also smokers will spend anything like the same amount of time or money in the pub if they are prevented from lighting up. On the other hand, the idea that there is a vast reserve army of committed non-smokers who would tear themselves away from the television and rush down to the local every night as soon as smoking was banned is sheer fantasy.

Although the issues involved are not entirely the same, there are many parallels between the campaign against smoking and that against pubs and alcohol, including shared personnel. These are the sanctimonious killjoys who derive a perverse pleasure from telling others whatís good for them. Nobody who enjoys a few pints in the pub from time to time should lend any support to a total smoking ban. If you do, when the time comes to take a stand in defence of your own liberties, you may find precious few others prepared to line up alongside you.

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