Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 2007

* Essence de Pub *

Tobacco smoke often masked an unpalatable atmosphere in pubs

IN IRELAND and Scotland, following the smoking ban, pubgoers were taken aback by an unaccustomed and distinctly unsavoury aroma in their favourite hostelries. Tobacco smoke had been concealing a multitude of sins, and an offputting mixture of sweat, urine, flatulence, stale beer and stale food now held sway.

Up to a point this shows the need for pubs to pay more attention to general cleanliness. But, on the other hand, it has to be said that some pub customers, especially the kind who tend to prop up the bar for hours on end, leave something to be desired in terms of personal hygiene.

In a bid to counter this problem, pub company Mitchells & Butlers have been experimenting in Scotland with pumping various forms of artificial smells into their pubs, including those of ocean breezes, leather and freshly mown grass. Irony of ironies, one pub in Birmingham has even reintroduced the smell (if not the actual content) of tobacco smoke, to bring back that distinctive pub atmosphere that had been lost.

* The Ghost Army*

The predicted influx of non-smokers has, not surprisingly, failed to materialise

SUPPORTERS of the smoking ban often claimed that it would result in large numbers of people flocking to pubs who had previously avoided them as they were too smoky. However, in reality this influx has been conspicuous by its absence. Obviously the effect is not even across the board, but in my experience many pubs have been noticeably quieter than they were before, with the remaining customers looking a little bemused and wondering what has happened. One licensee commented to me that while food sales had scarcely been affected, the “vault trade” had fallen off a cliff, an experience that will be reflected in thousands of other pubs.

And local pubs themselves are still the same homely, haphazard places populated by people who have a lot of time on their hands. If they didn't hold much appeal before, simply removing smoke and smokers isn't really going to give non-pubgoers a good reason for visiting them. As I predicted, the idea the smoking ban would bring in large numbers of new customers has been shown to be a complete myth.

* Out of Sight, out of Mind *

Moving the focus of the pub outside creates new problems

THROUGHOUT much of the last century, supervision in pubs was an obsession of licensing magistrates, and the supposed need for all parts of a pub to be visible from the bar was often used as an excuse for the removal of internal walls. Yet one obvious result of the smoking ban is the transfer of a substantial proportion of the customers from inside the pub to an outside drinking area which, by definition, is much harder to supervise from the servery.

Licensees have reported instances of people buying drinks for underage companions, drinking from cans they have bought at the off-licence, and even smoking cannabis, which is much harder to detect in the open air. Forcing a large section of the clientèle outside is also likely to lead to pubs creating a more obvious nuisance in their neighbourhood and increase pressure for their hours to be curbed or even for them to be closed down entirely.

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