Smoking in Pubs.

Published on 2 June 2003 in , ,

As a member of Camra I eagerly await my copy of the member newspaper, What’s Brewing every month. Especially the letters page.

Letters pages are often the best parts of any publication (and I know – I wrote most of the letters that appeared in the letters page of our 6th form college magazine, Hydra!), and What’s Brewing’s page is no exception. Lately one of the hotest topics has been that of smoking in pubs.

Being a non-smoker, and someone who spent many nights working in a very smokey student bar, I have to be honest and say that I would much rather smoking be banned in pubs – especially given that I’m asthmatic.

However I also know that smoking in pubs isn’t going to go away. Well not just yet, and it’s certainly not enough to put me off going out for a few pints.

There are many arguments about smoking, and few real answers. To many the answers are simple and clear. But most of those answers are simplistic and don’t look at the full picture.

Number of smokers.

For many anti-smoking fans, the sheer numbers of non-smokers makes them wonder why they have to suffer smoke in pubs.

And on the numbers argument, they appear to be right. Around a quarter of the UK’s population smokes, meaning that 3 out of 4 people don’t.

On the face of it, these facts look like a valid argument for shunting people off to the back of the pub in a small self contained room by themselves. But when you delve a bit deeper, it looks a bit different as…

Smoke free areas are underused.

Go out to any pub and study the people smoking. Study the large groups of people especially. In any large group of people, there is usually at least one person smoking.

As such, the whole group usually ends up in the smoking area (assuming that a pub has smoking and non-smoking areas), despite the fact that the majority are not smoking.

Given that lots of people go to the pub in groups, this is actually quite a problem to the numbers argument, and means that the smoking areas are always going to be fuller – indeed they’ll usually contain more non-smokers than smokers!

Let the market decide – let people open smoke-free pubs!

One of the big arguments from the smoking lobby is that pubs should be free to choose their smoking policy – whether to allow smoking or not. They then point to the minute number of pubs that ban smoking as if to say, "look, the market has spoken!"

Of course on the face of it this looks perfectly reasonable, especially when you consider that one of the big reasons given for people not going to pubs, is the smoke. But again, it only skims the surface. It’s that groups problem all over again.

If loads of non-smokers end up in smoking areas due to a small number of smokers, how likely is it that the group will go to a non-smoking pub? Not very of course.

Ah, but then there are those that don’t go to the pub!

The argument would go that the loss of customers would be made up by the new customers coming in due to the fact that smoking has been banned. Well that’s the theory. And it leads onto the question… how do the people who don’t go to pubs know that a certain pub is a smoke free enviroment?

The nail is firmly hit on the head. It’s hard to promote the non-smoking enviroment in a way that people who don’t visit pubs will see. Of course there’s advertising, but it’s not the easiest of things to achieve.

If you get it right, you could replace the lost punters, but the worst case scenario for a pub owner having made the switch is that they’ve lost a huge chunk of their customers, with few coming in to replace them.

No wonder few pubs have taken the leap. It’s actually quite hard to imagine most pubs going down that route unless they were forced to by law. Of course this would have a good effect of letting people know that pubs are smoke free, meaning that those after a smoke free enviroment may well take the plunge and visit their local.

Force pubs to go smoke free then?

So with so many people not smoking, and many people being put off pubs due to the smoke filled enviroment, and the likelihood of pubs going smoke free being very small, it would seem that the only way to get smoke free pubs is via leglistlation.

The doom mongerers would of course take this oppertunity to point to New York which recently banned smoking in bars and restaurants, and which has also seen takings in bars and restaurants fall on average by 20%.

This figure of course looks rather drastic, but it’s worth remembering that it’s very early days for New York’s law, and it’s quite possible that trade will bounce back as the market adapts to the new climate.

California has had similar laws for some time (with special designated smoking clubs) and hasn’t seen the end of it’s restaurant and bar trade. In the short term though, New York’s experiences would be enough sway to put off similar leglislation being introduced in the UK.

Another solution?

The other solution is not quite so extreme, but would need a fundamental attitude shift in the UK. Smokers themselves would have to change their behaviour.

Rather than forcing everyone in the group into the smoking area for a minority, the group could sit in the non-smoking area, with the smokers nipping off for a quick fag as and when necessary.

I’ve actually been in pubs when people have done this, and for the non-smokers it worked very well. Not being the one outcast I can’t say how it felt for the smokers.

It would also have another benefit for the smokers.

Research has shown that three out of four smokers want to quit, and it’s well known that one of the biggest stumbling blocks is being surrounded by other smokers in pubs and bars. Others smoking is a huge temptation for people. Think about it – you’re a smoker and you’re trying to wein yourself off it, but everywhere around you people are smoking. Not exactly going to help.

There are many considerate smokers who will see no problem with this approach. Indeed if a predominantly non-smoking group suggested it, they may well see no problem with it. There may be smokers reading this to whom it has just never occurred.

But then there are a band of smokers who are of course very selfish. Personally I hope they are in the minority, and I can’t think of any out of the smokers I know – however out of the wider group of smokers I have met… Well there have been some.

And the air-conditioning.

Someone will read up to here and pick up on something I haven’t so far mentioned. Air conditioning.

And yes, it’s a point worth mentioning, as a pub with good air conditioning can make pubs with smokers far less noticable.

And of course there is a problem.

Whilst air conditioning is easier to fit in to modern pubs and bars, it’s not as easy to fit into older pubs – the little locals that nestle on streets across the country. The kind of pubs which often don’t have the room for seperate smoking and non-smoking areas.

There are air filters and fans which can remove some of the smoke, but it has to be said, not all.

So what is the answer?

Tricky. With the number of smokers falling year after year, at some point smokers really will be in the minority.

It’s possible that this fall will make the whole issue rather irrelavant, and if the number of smokers fell to say 10% of the population, landlords and managers will no doubt reavulate off their own backs. However given that the number of smokers declines only slowly this isn’t very likely.

My personal hunch is that the only way things will change regarding smoke in pubs is via a change in the law, perhaps a California style law that creates seperate smoking clubs and pubs.

What that would do to the pub market, well it’s difficult to say. The UK is not New York after all, and it may well tempt a lot of people back into pubs, if they can enter knowing that they’re going to a smoke free enviroment.

We probably won’t know what will happen until (assuming it does) the law changes. But until then, I seriously doubt smoking in pubs will change. Nor do I doubt that the contraversy that surrounds the issue will change either.