How the smoking ban killed off the local boozer

Working-class pubs have been decimated by this petty policy.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Saturday 1 July marks the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the smoking ban in England. The new law prohibited smoking in all workplaces and a variety of other public places. Many workplaces had already quarantined smokers to designated rooms or banned smoking altogether, so while the ban was an irritation, it only continued an existing trend. Where the smoking ban really hit was in pubs. The result has been to transform pubs, and in many ways for the worse. Many old-school boozers disappeared altogether, driven out of business as customers stayed away.

It shouldn’t have been like this. The original proposals put forward in Labour’s 2005 General Election manifesto offered a degree of flexibility about the ban. Firstly, pubs that don’t serve food and basically are just drinking establishments – ‘wet-led’, as they say in the trade – would not have been subject to the ban. The other kind of establishment given the freedom not to implement the ban would have been membership clubs, whether the posh gentlemen’s clubs of London or working men’s clubs around the country. It would be up to the members to decide.

That reflected the fact that there were still voices in the Labour hierarchy that had some sense of the party’s working-class roots. In particular, John Reid, who was health secretary at the time the legislation was first put forward, had been vocal in arguing that poorer people should be allowed their pleasures – including smoking – without undue interference from the state. However, Reid was moved in a cabinet reshuffle to be replaced by Patricia Hewitt, someone deaf to such subtleties.

There then followed much lobbying by health campaigners to make the ban more comprehensive. Any exemptions would cost lives, we were told. Bizarrely, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) also argued that a ban that exempted some pubs and clubs – that is, something that would allow at least some pubs to continue to allow smoking – was unfair. The exemptions were whittled away until all drinking establishments – apart from the bars in the Houses of Parliament, infamously – were banned from allowing smoking.

So, what has been the impact of the ban over the past 10 years? The first thing to be said is that the impact on health has been small or non-existent. That’s not surprising because the claim that passive smoking is a killer has always been shaky. The results of studies on passive smoking have been very inconsistent and at least two major studies in the past 15 years have concluded that, for the majority of people exposed to secondhand smoke, the risk is so small as not to be statistically significant.

That hasn’t stopped the claimsmaking since the ban. First, there was the bizarre tale of the ‘heart attack miracle’ – that rates of major coronary events plummet after the implementation of smoking bans. The first place for which this was claimed was the small town of Helena in the US state of Montana (current population: 28,000). A report in the British Medical Journal claimed heart attacks had fallen by 40 per cent there during a short-lived smoking ban. More pertinently, a study covering Scotland found a fall of 17 per cent in heart attacks after the smoking ban came into force in 2006. On closer inspection, however, the heart attack miracle fell apart, to the point where any fall in heart attacks at all due to the ban was called into question.

The second big health claim was that smokers, denied the convenience of smoking indoors, would throw in the towel and quit altogether. In fact, smoking rates, which had been falling steadily for decades, actually plateaued. It was only with the emergence of e-cigarettes into the mainstream that smoking rates started to fall again. Rather than state-imposed restrictions, it was the offer of an almost-as-good alternative product that led increasing numbers of smokers to quit.

In fact, what the smoking ban did was drive people away from pubs. Why put up with the hassle of standing outside in all weathers when you can drink at home both more cheaply and with the freedom to smoke as you please? Pubs, of course, reacted to the ban in two ways. First, those that had the space created comfortable smoking areas outdoors, with some cover from the rain and patio heaters to keep things warm in the winter. Secondly, pubs made up for the lost income from smoking customers by serving more and better food.

However, neither of these things were possible for some pubs. There were those ‘wet-led’ pubs that didn’t have the facilities for serving food or whose customer base wasn’t particularly interested in pub grub. And there were pubs that had no outside space of their own, so-called ‘landlocked’ pubs, particularly those corner boozers in residential areas whose neighbours were quick to complain about drinkers spilling out on to the street to talk, drink and smoke. It’s pubs of this kind – especially in poorer, inner-city parts of the country – that suffered from the smoking ban.

It would be close to impossible to figure out exactly how many pubs went to the wall because of the ban, but figures obtained by Forest, the smokers’ rights group, show that there are now 12,000 fewer pubs in England and Wales than before the ban was implemented. Since the ban, there has of course been a major economic crisis. Along with rising property prices and alcohol taxes, pubs have been victims of a ‘perfect storm’ of problems. But thanks to the fact that the ban was introduced in Ireland and Scotland well before the economic downturn, it is possible to show that the ban accelerated a long-term decline in the number of pubs independently of other factors.

The loss of pubs in some areas has been astonishing. A report by the University of Sheffield earlier this year found that there was a 30 per cent reduction in pubs, bars and clubs located within one kilometre of England’s most socially deprived postcodes since the ban, in areas like Tower Hamlets in London, Oldham in north-west England, and West Bromwich near Birmingham. A report for the Mayor of London found that the city has lost a quarter of its pubs, with the worst-hit areas being Barking and Dagenham (56 per cent) and Newham (52 per cent). To reiterate: these losses are not solely down to the smoking ban, but it played an important role.

And pubs are important. The US comedy series Cheers did a great job of showing how pubs can provide a social life for many people who might otherwise struggle to find one, a place where ‘everybody knows your name’, a valuable antidote to isolation and loneliness. They are also important social hubs, vital to the life of the community. It’s no wonder that the creators of British soap operas like Coronation Street, EastEnders and Emmerdale put pubs at the centre of local life – and the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic and the Woolpack would be just the kind of boozers whose real-life equivalents would be hit hard by the smoking ban.

When we tot up the pros and cons of the ban, we should remember the damage it has done to many local pubs and the communities that they serve. It’s true that many people dislike cigarette smoke and may well be happier that they can drink in pubs more comfortably now. But it could have been possible to accommodate changing attitudes without the absolutism of the health lobby. Better ventilation, separate smoking rooms and more could have provided a perfectly workable compromise. Instead, we’ve lost many of our boozers with little benefit to health and at a substantial cost to businesses, customers and, above all, to personal choice.

Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist. He is author of a new report for Forest, Road to Ruin? The Impact of the Smoking Ban on Pubs and Personal Choice, published on 26 June and available to download here.

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Politics


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