No ifs or butts

17 November 2004
No ifs or butts

Buy your pint, find a free table, ease back into your chair and take out your cigarettes or tobacco. A simple ritual, always enjoyed and many times repeated; repeated so often, in fact, that smoking and drinking, or smoking and eating, have become poetically linked like old lovers - an easy pleasure that to the doting disciple seems both too obvious and too private for anyone to dare break up.

But that romanticism is under scrutiny. The age-old custom of smoking when dining or smoking when drinking is beginning to look exactly that - an outdated habit from an age gone by, one that no weight of history or culture can excuse from a person's responsibilities in the modern world. At home, in private, of course, this is none of our business. Smokers have known for years the harm it can do. Sympathy for a few unfortunate spouses or kids aside, if you choose to carry on, go ahead. Taxes have been paid; doctors and somewhere to die will be provided.

But it's harder to be so flippant when it comes to smoking in public, as the Department of Health is sure to make clear when it publishes its White Paper on the matter in the next few weeks. According to evidence from the British Medical Association (BMA), if you work in a smoky environment, as a non-smoker you have a 35% increased risk of developing heart disease and a 30% increased chance of developing lung cancer.

According to campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), passive smoking is now being linked to 1,000 deaths in the UK each year, and one study claims that 700 of those are caused in the workplace.

When you think that the Health & Safety Executive reported only 226 deaths from industrial accidents in the UK in 2002-03, smoking suddenly looks like a very strange and slightly ridiculous anomaly, and one that needs to be addressed.

Caterer's own evidence backs this up. In our survey published today (see page 6), 95% of respondents accepted that working in a smoky atmosphere damaged their health. Nearly 60% said they noticed side effects from working in a smoky environment, while, unsurprisingly perhaps, an overwhelming majority (87%) said they would prefer to work in a smoke-free atmosphere. Any lingering scepticism has been banished.

In Ireland, where a total ban on smoking in the workplace was introduced in March, it was exactly that concern for the dangers of passive smoking that led to legislation. "The Irish felt it was a health and safety issue," says Peter Maguire, deputy chairman on the BMA's Board of Science. "Insurance companies would soon be coming in and saying, ‘Employees are falling ill. We can't afford the compensation.'"

Even if, despite the mounting evidence, court cases do not prove the link conclusively, Quentin Reade, news editor of trade magazine Personnel Today, says the threat of a court appearance alone should scare companies. "Do employers want to take that risk? You picture: if you were the first company in the country to be taken to court for possibly giving your staff lung cancer, the associated damage to reputation would be everywhere."

Public opinion, at least, is already primed for a ban. The Office for National Statistics report into public attitudes towards smoking for 2003 revealed that 87% thought there should be restrictions on smoking in restaurants, and 56% in pubs. But what of a total ban? Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, who also sits on the committee charged with reporting back to the Government on this issue, says he has detected a sea change in public opinion. "Even among smokers there has been a general acceptance that, since Ireland, perhaps this is possible," he says. "You never want to be too far ahead of what the customer wants, but already, if you are sitting in a restaurant, you don't expect people to smoke."

Famously, Gordon Ramsay has banned smoking from the dining rooms of his London restaurants - albeit, he says, for sensory considerations rather than medical; Conran Restaurants is considering it; and hotel chain Malmaison is banning smoking from all its brasseries as of 1 October. According to Malmaison chief executive Robert Cook, this is all due to public opinion. "We are getting asked repeatedly about it," he says. "We are opening a new brasserie in Newcastle, and those questioned were almost unanimous."

The relationship with drinking in pubs may be harder to let go. However, Tim Smith, business development manager for the Charles Wells stable of pubs, says that with every new pub the company takes over, a questionnaire is conducted to gauge how large the non-smoking area should be. "With a couple of pubs we have acquired recently, the questionnaires have come back and they have seriously made us think, ‘Is this is going to be the first Charles Wells non-smoking pub?'"

Last week in Edinburgh, just as First Minister Jack McConnell was returning from his own smoking fact-finding mission in Ireland (with not quite the zeal, but the grin, at least, of a convert), the Scottish Tourism Forum was preparing to poll members and non-members on the matter of a ban in Scotland. Again, the results were overwhelming: 94% believe further action needs to be taken to reduce people's exposure to second-hand smoke, and 90% say they would support a law to make enclosed public spaces smoke-free.

Industry bosses south of the border also support a total ban. "It would be wrong to devolve the decision to local authorities," says Cotton. "We have something like 200 councils, and we don't want a situation where you can have a drink with a cigarette on one side of the street and not the other. It would distort competition. At any rate, if it is for health and safety reasons, how can you have a piecemeal approach?"

JD Wetherspoon's operations director, Nathan Wall, adds that a total ban would make running the pubs easier. "Much better - like parking on a yellow line, people know where they stand."

Despite this and the fact that public opinion would stomach the ban, many in the trade still seem obsessed by the spectre of empty pubs and bankrupt businesses. The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, for instance, says the current state of self-regulation is satisfactory, calling for increased use of ventilation and properly patrolled non-smoking and smoking areas.

That is a position that many companies have been pursuing for years. Wetherspoon's - which is now also calling for a total ban - has banned smoking at the bar since 1992, and most larger pub companies already operate non-smoking areas. However, does it make a difference whether the non-smoker is one or 10 metres away from the smoker?

The BMA's Maguire says no-smoking areas and ventilation are red herrings. "The only way to deal with it is to have a completely smoke-free atmosphere," he says. "There are two types of smoke: one is inhaled and the other is the side smoke that passes into the atmosphere - but there are over 400 chemicals in both, many of which are invisible. Even if you have ventilation or distance, you still have them." Cotton agrees: "Making the room simply feel clean is not enough." Short of having a fan that mimics a 15mph breeze, along with the associated costs and a stream of guests with hypothermia, a total ban seems the only effective safeguard.

And what of lost trade? Again there is plenty of hearsay from Ireland and New York about lost profits and pubs in crisis, but there are wider issues involved. First is the other, less infamous, ban that Ireland introduced in 2003: the banning of under-18s from drinking in pubs after 9pm. According to the Irish minister for tourism, John O'Donoghue, it is this ban rather than the smoking ban that has had the most impact on the number of people, as families or tourists, visiting Irish pubs. He is calling for the deadline to be extended to 10pm.

There are two more factors affecting the decline in drinks sales, according to Nicholas Griffin, manager of O'Dowd's pub in Roundstone, County Galway. "Drink sales have been decreasing for over two years because of increased drink pricing in Ireland and a very strict anti-drink-driving policy by the police and the media. It is not just the smoking ban." At any rate, as a business with 70% turnover in food, he reckons his profit has actually increased since the ban. "Before, if there wasn't space in the restaurant and you took groups to the bar for the bar menu," he says, "often they took a look around and then said they'd try another time." He adds that many Irish restaurants and food-led pubs have reported increased business.

Complaining about civil liberties, or worse, about commercial interests, is nothing compared with the prospect of blood on the industry's hands. No one should be exposed to the possibilities of lung cancer, loss of limb, emphysema or major heart disease simply because they work in an industry that doesn't care enough about its workers to change the status quo. "Somebody has to move on it," says Maguire. "Who would have thought that Ireland, with all its culture, would have managed it? Then along came Norway in June; then Massachusetts in the States; and now New Zealand, Sweden and Malta are all lining up. The dominoes are falling, and the pressure is on."

Possible timetable for the introduction of a total smoking ban

  • Late September 2004 - the Department of Health issues its White Paper outlining its position on the smoking ban: in favour of a total ban, citing the dangers of passive smoking.

  • Late September 2004 - the Labour Party releases a discussion document outlining a wider position on the debate. There's some concern over the issue of choice, but the prime minister lends support.

  • 26-30 September 2004 - Labour Party conference takes place at the Brighton Centre. White Paper and discussion document debated. Delegates vote for manifesto pledge.

  • March to April 2005 - provided the next General Election is timetabled for spring 2005, party manifestos will appear about one, or at most two, months beforehand. Smoking ban included in the legislative programme.

  • May 2005 - most likely date of election. Labour, already vocal supporters of some sort of ban, are re-elected. Debating begins.

  • Summer 2006 - after sentimental opposition from the old guard in the Lords, a total ban (except outdoors) becomes an act of Parliament and is rushed through in time for the good weather.

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