Winners and losers emerging as the Scottish smoke clears

15 February 2007
Winners and losers emerging as the Scottish smoke clears

It is nearly a year since smoking was banned in pubs and bars across Scotland and some establishments have fared better than others. With the English and Wales bans imminent, what lessons have been learnt? Nic Paton reports

Health minister Andy Kerr is adamant the ban on smoking in public places has been a roaring success.

Kerr, a long-time advocate of the ban, last week told MSPs the early indications were that what he called "undeniably the most important piece of public health legislation in a generation" was making a positive difference to the health of bar workers and the general public in Scotland.

This was borne out by a study of 41 bars by academics at Aberdeen University this month, which reported an 86% reduction in exposure to second-hand smoke for bar workers.

But for operators the months since the ban came in last March have been a steep and, for some, none too pleasant learning curve.

With Christmas trading statements from most of the main pub chains now published, it's possible to get a feel for how the ban has affected trade north of the border and, by implication, the likely impact in Wales and England come their bans in April and July respectively.

Some chains doing well

What's very clear so far is that the winners by and large have been those chains that have pubs with outdoor areas and/or well-established food offers. JD Wetherspoon said last month that sales at its 39 Scottish pubs had risen 4.9% over the year and were up 3.9% in the 12 weeks to 21 January.

Mitchells & Butlers, again with a strong food offer, was also upbeat. Since March, like-for-like sales in Scotland, where the chain has about 100 pubs, have risen 1.3% and, in the 16 weeks to 20 January, were ahead 0.4%, with a 2% decline in drink sales offset by a 5% increase in food sales.

Kathryn Holland, M&B director of corporate communications, argues that the chain's experience in Scotland generally bodes well for England and Wales.

"The main thing we've learnt, as we thought might be the case, is that food sales have seen quite a strong growth trend, and we're taking a bit of confidence from that, particularly as our Scottish estate tends to have fewer pub-restaurants," she said.

It's been a similar story at Punch Taverns, which has 493 pubs in Scotland. It has seen a 5% growth in its core managed estate in the 20 weeks to 6 January, again with a growing emphasis on food sales.

Overall, the ban in Scotland has not thrown up that many surprises, according to Punch regional operations director Sue Allen.

"It has taught us a great deal about how the trade might react to a ban, despite the Scottish market having different characteristics in terms of weather, social habits in pub visiting, property styles and planning regulations," she said.

For others, however, the ban has proved less positive. Greene King, which operates the Belhaven chain in Scotland, has seen its sales in the country fall 2.8% in the 36 weeks to 7 January.

And speak to organisations such as the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) and the outlook is anything but rosy. Last summer it carried out a survey to gauge the initial impact of the ban, and found operators reporting wet sales down about 11% and, surprisingly, food sales also down, about 3%.

Since then, if anything, poor weather over the winter has meant things have got even tougher, said SLTA chief executive Paul Waterson.

"What we have been hearing is that regulars are coming in to premises less often and not staying as long when they do. The massive influx of new customers that we were promised by the Scottish Executive once we became smoke-free has not materialised," he said.

"A lot of pubs in Scotland are landlocked or in tenement buildings where there's nowhere else for people to go. The weather over the winter has been bad and more people have been drinking at home."

Reluctant compliance

One positive, nevertheless, is that it appears operators, however reluctantly, have by and large complied with the ban. Across the country there has been a 98-99% compliance rate, according to the Scottish Beer and Pub Association.

"People have accepted it, there has been a bit of a wartime spirit about it. But I think we'll need to get a full year out of the way before we can really assess the full impact," said chief executive Patrick Browne.

The message for publicans in England and Wales gearing up for their ban, argues Allen, is that those who prepare well in advance, invest in food and modernise will probably come through and may even benefit. By contrast, those that stick their heads in the sand will struggle.

"Those pubs in Scotland that have not modernised their offer have found trading the toughest post-ban," she said.

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