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Five Years On
The smoking ban has devastated the pub trade, but its supporters still refuse to admit it
The beginning of July saw the fifth anniversary of the introduction of the blanket indoor smoking ban in England. During that period, over 10,000 pubs have closed in England alone, over a sixth of the total that were open before, and beer sales in pubs have fallen by 27%, compared with 13% over the preceding five years [1]. On any road journey through town, suburbs or countryside, the sight of closed and boarded pubs has become depressingly familiar.
Nobody is claiming that the smoking ban has been the sole factor behind the recent wave of pub closures, but there has been a clear step-change in the rate of decline. The recession is often blamed, but in the past pubs, as a kind of “affordable pleasure” have been relatively resilient to economic downturns, and there was a marked increase in closures in the second half of 2007, well before the credit crunch kicked in [2].
Brewers and pub operators from J. W. Lees [3] to J. D. Wetherspoon [4] have reported a significant fall in trade and profitability in the wake of the ban, and there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence from licensees that their trade has been severely affected. In the words of licensee Mark Daniels, who was far from a diehard opponent, “The smoking ban has certainly caused most pubs, especially those that were traditional drinking outlets (like mine, for example), a lot of pain - and it has caused a lot to close, too. To say it hasn't is, frankly, ridiculous and shows a severe lack of knowledge of the problems the pub trade is facing right now.” [5]
While many pubs continue to do reasonably well at the traditional busy weekend times, it is noticeable that they are much quieter at lunchtimes and early evenings, and the “baseload” trade of regulars they once enjoyed is greatly diminished. This affects non-smokers too, as if your smoking friend has stopped going to the pub you might well choose to do the same. The naïvely optimistic forecasts that pubs would attract a whole new wave of non-smoking customers have proved to be totally misplaced.
In hindsight, surely it would have been far better if some compromise could have been reached that allowed smoking to continue in separate rooms in pubs, but ensured provision for those who preferred a non-smoking environment. This would have undoubtedly have avoided much of the damage that has ensued. If those who supported the ban back in 2007 were prepared to admit they had been wrong, they might be deserving of some respect, but by continuing to insist in the face of all the evidence that it has done no harm they forfeit all credibility.
It was always claimed by supporters of the ban that smoking was a special case, and that the principle would not be extended. However, it is now becoming ever more clear that, just as predicted by opponents of the ban, the campaign against smoking is being used as a template for action in other areas, including many aspects of diet, but especially alcohol. For example, there was a recent article in “The Independent” from columnist Steve Richards in which he said “binge-drinking can go the way of smoking”, and drew an explicit parallel between the two [6]. Scarcely a month goes by now without some new anti-drink measure being proposed or implemented, many of which are obviously copied from tobacco control.
In the short term, there may be little chance of any relaxation of the ban, although similar bans have been amended in other countries, but any campaign to defend pubs that does not at least acknowledge the damage it has caused is an exercise in hypocrisy and denial that is doomed to failure. In the words of Chris Snowdon, author of “The Art of Suppression”, the definitive study of modern-day Prohibitionism [7], “If I see one more politician who voted for the smoking ban crying crocodile tears about the state of the pub industry, I may throw up.” [8]
[1] BBPA Beer Barometer – First Quarter 2012
[2] Guardian - Where have all the pubs gone?
[3] "JW Lees, the family-owned brewery based in Middleton, blamed another poor summer and the continuing impact of the smoking ban introduced in 2007 for a 34 per cent drop in profits in the year to March 31, 2009."
Retrieved in 2009 from:
[4] Telegraph - Wetherspoon fumes over smoking ban
[5] Retrieved from The Publican website, 2008, no longer on line
[6] Independent - Binge-drinking can go the way of smoking
[7] The Art of Suppression
[8] Strange, strange bedfellows