Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2006

* Up In Smoke *

The smoking ban could spell the end for the community local

Well, intolerance has prevailed, and we are now going to get a total ban on smoking in pubs and clubs in England. There is little point in those who run pubs crying over spilt milk, and they will need to think carefully about how they are going to adapt to the change. But many may well reach the conclusion there is little point in continuing at all.

You are likely to hear apologists for a total ban claim that the experience of other countries is that it has not led to any decline in trade, and may even have brought about an increase. However, they are quoting figures that cover the whole bar and restaurant sector, even going so far as places like McDonalds, and to use them to predict the impact on pubs and bars is a highly misleading use of statistics that is only too typical of the dishonest tactics they have employed. There is a general trend in society towards people eating out more, and this has the effect of masking the impact on the drinks trade in bars. In every country that has banned smoking, there has been a marked decline in business for wet-led bars.

In Ireland, there was an overall drop of more than 10%, and for many smaller bars in rural towns and villages the figure was over 25%. The Irish Licensed Victuallers estimate that the smoking ban led directly to the closure of over 400 pubs, or one for every 10,000 of the population, over and above any loss of pubs due to the general year-on-year trend. Although you may sometimes hear people who have been on holiday to Ireland say they havenít noticed much difference, visiting tourist areas is not going to be representative of the country as a whole. You wouldnít base a survey of the English pub trade solely on the West End of London and Stratford-on-Avon, and if they went to the backstreets of Limerick, or little market towns off the beaten track, they would find a very different story.

An equivalent loss of pubs would be 30 in Stockport, 40 in Manchester. And the closures would not be spread evenly across the board, as dining outlets and vertical drinking circuit bars would be little affected, while small community locals would be hit very hard. These are exactly the kind of traditional pubs that CAMRA champions and which form the backbone of the real ale market. Clearly it wouldnít be the case that all these pubs closed simultaneously overnight, and some could even shut up shop before the ban came in. Anyone would certainly think long and hard before taking on the tenancy of a small wet-led local with the ban looming over them. There are many factors affecting trade, and if a pub is already struggling a bit, as so many are, then a drop in business of 10 or 20% might well lead them to give up the ghost, leading to a steady trickle of closures over a number of years. The smoking ban will serve to intensify the trends that are already in operation in the licensed trade.

Itís sometimes claimed that a smoking ban will bring in a lot of new customers who currently avoid pubs because they are too smoky, but this really doesnít stand up at all. While people may grumble about smoky atmospheres, the number who feel so strongly that they actively avoid going to pubs must be minimal. The experience of pubs that have in the past gone totally non-smoking does not suggest they are flooded with new customers Ė indeed some experienced such a fall-off in trade that they had to reintroduce a smoking area. And if youíre that fussy about health matters itís unlikely that youíre going to want to spend long hours drinking in pubs anyway.

Even if you sympathise with the argument behind it, donít fool yourself that the pub trade will sail largely unscathed through a smoking ban. It wonít.

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