Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - July 2008

* No Acceptance *

The smoking ban has created an abiding legacy of bitterness in the country

This month sees the first anniversary of the total smoking ban in licensed premises in England. While some commentators have claimed that it has generally been accepted and things have moved on, on the ground I just don’t see that acceptance at all. Apparently during the May local elections, canvassers found that in working-class areas the smoking ban was one of the major sources of complaint. It may well have contributed to Labour’s record low share of the vote. Bolton Labour MP Brian Iddon has stated bluntly that it has left his party’s traditional voters feeling “heavily bruised”.

CAMRA used to raise alarm bells over six pubs closing a week, but the rate of closures has now quadrupled to four a day, and since the ban came in over fifteen hundred pubs across the country have shut their doors for ever. Obviously there are other factors at work, but there’s a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the drop-off in custom following the smoking ban has been the key factor in pushing pubs over the edge, with falls in trade of up to 40% being reported. In Scotland, which introduced its ban a year earlier, the number of pubs closing has been twice even the rate predicted by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, which had been decried by ban supporters as unduly pessimistic.

If government diktat insists that you are treated like a pariah when you go to the pub, and forced to stand outside in the cold and wind if you want a cigarette, it’s hardly surprising that your enthusiasm for pubgoing is likely to wane. And, if the smokers stay away, so might the non-smoking friends they used to socialise with. I certainly notice that, apart from the traditional weekend busy times, the non-dining trade in pubs is markedly thinner than it was in the first half of 2007. The attractions of getting some cans in and sitting down in front of the TV with your mates at home, where you can still smoke, have never seemed greater.

Obviously it is sad when pubs close, but if government policy has made a pub unviable operators cannot be blamed for calling time on flogging a dead horse. Indeed it might impart a few home truths to some of the self-deluding supporters of the ban if a few of their favourite hostelries were forced to shut down.

It was often claimed that hordes of committed non-smokers would flock to pubs in the wake of the ban, but in reality, as I predicted, this was never going to happen. People who were so fastidious that they actively avoided pubs because they were smoky are not the kind to want to spend much time drinking in pubs anyway. As one licensee said, “We’ve had a slide of about ten to twenty percent. I’d like to know where the nonsmokers that were supposed to be coming into pubs when the ban was introduced are. I haven't seen any…” All the ban has done is to make pubs more acceptable to non-pubgoers. So the folk who used to go in a pub once every three months and moan about it being smoky, will now still go in every three months and say how much better it is that there’s no smoke and all those rough people are no longer there.

The blanket smoking ban was totally wrong a year ago, and the passage of time does not make it any less wrong. It is not something that people will simply accept and move on, and it has left an enduring legacy of bitterness amongst tolerant non-smokers just as much as smokers themselves. While it might be unrealistic to hold out too much hope, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a future government may see sense and allow pubs and clubs to have separate indoor smoking rooms if they so wish. If this doesn’t happen, then the pub trade will inevitably continue to decline at a rapid rate.

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