Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 2005

* Divide and Rule *

The government’s plans to curb smoking in pubs are ill-informed and likely to produce perverse results

MANY LICENSEES and pubgoers will have breathed a sigh of relief when the government announced that they did not intend to impose a total prohibition of smoking in pubs, something which, going by the Irish example, would reduce overall trade by about 20% and lead to the closure of thousands of pubs and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

However, the proposals they have come up with – to ban smoking entirely in any pubs serving “prepared food”, but to continue to permit it away from the bar area in other pubs and private clubs – seem remarkably ill-informed and potentially likely to achieve the opposite effect to that intended. The plans give the impression of having been formulated by people who rarely if ever visit pubs and have no idea how they function in real life.

While around 80% of pubs serve food of some kind, the number where it is a major part of their business is probably only about a quarter. Many more will provide some lunchtime food for local workers, or for tourists, but gain most of their trade from regular customers in the evenings. Half of total pub takings come on Friday and Saturday nights, when relatively few customers will be eating. A lot of pubs will be faced with a stark choice of closing their kitchens in order to protect their regular trade. This would go entirely against the trend of the past thirty or so years of broadening the appeal of pubs.

Where pubs have historically been a relatively homogenous institution – everyone knows more or less what a pub is – in future they will be artificially divided into two classes of “diners” and “smokers” which broadly would represent a split between middle class and working class pubs. Over the years these two types of establishment would tend to grow apart and eventually would be unrecognisable to each other. The further spread of food in pubs would be largely halted, as it would be a huge risk and upheaval to bar your smoking customers in favour of serving meals. And in many working-class areas it would become well-nigh impossible to find any pubs serving food, or even open at all on weekday lunchtimes. The end result will be less to ban smoking in pubs than to ban food in pubs.

Realistically, preserving the status quo or anything resembling it is not an option. Some form of government restriction on smoking in pubs is inevitable. But the proposals as they stand are ill-informed, divisive and likely to be counter-productive. Therefore it would make sense for everyone interested in defending the licensed trade to unite behind an acceptance that non-smoking should become the norm in pubs, but that all pubs, whether or not they serve food, should be allowed to set aside an indoor smoking area provided it is genuinely separate from the rest of the pub, children are not admitted and no food is served there (although it would be unreasonable to prevent customers from carrying food into smoking rooms).

In this way no customers would need to enter a smoking area unless they had freely chosen to do so, and neither would any staff be expected to work there for prolonged periods. By preventing the establishment of smoking ghettoes in local boozers there is a strong argument that it would also do more to deter people from smoking in the first place. As such a solution would involve substantial rearrangement and structural work in many pubs, it would be important for government to give a commitment that they would not return to the issue of a total smoking ban in pubs for many years.

It was also good to see Mike Benner, CAMRA’s recently promoted Chief Executive, speaking out strongly against the proposals and pointing out the severe threat they represent to community pubs. Too often in the past CAMRA has washed its hands of the really big issues affecting the pub trade, on the grounds that they are just too difficult and politically controversial.

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