Scottish drinks trade vows to fight smoking ban

Related tags Smoking ban

Scottish politicians are expected to vote later today to ban
smoking in public places - a move which could have a devastating
effect on the drinks trade there. But pub operators and brewers
will not take the decision lightly, and have vowed to fight the ban
'tooth and nail', write Iain Forbes and Chris Jones.

Health is one of the key areas devolved to the Scottish parliament, and the outspoken support for a total ban from First Minister Jack McConnell makes the result of today's vote all but a foregone conclusion.

For supporters of a ban on smoking in public places, the evidence speaks for itself. A recent study by the London Evening Standard​ newspaper showed that an evening spent socialising in various licensed venues resulted in the body absorbing the same amount of nicotine as smoking a cigarette every three hours.

The British Medical Association (BMA) earlier this year presented a stark warning on the dangers of nicotine to the UK government, while senior doctors in Scotland went one step further and called for a complete ban.

Few can argue that reducing the risk of cancer and other smoking-related diseases is likely to be of benefit to all, but for the Scottish Licensed Trade Association an outright ban on public smoking is likely to cause as much harm as good.

The SLTA has come up with some compromise proposals, such as a smoking ban at the bar and in any area where and when hot food is being served, increasing ventilation and requiring pubs to allocate a minimum of 30 per cent of total floor space as a non smoking area (increasing to 50 per cent within two years) which it claims will allow the Scottish executive to achieve its goal of reducing smoking fumes while at the same time protecting the country's licensed trade, the association argues.

The proposals, it says, are similar to those implemented in Norway, which has moved to a total ban over a period of some 10 years.

The SLTA claims that 67 per cent of pub goers are smokers, so the impact of an outright ban will be devastating, with some 30,000 jobs potentially lost. Moreover, it argues that the loss to the Exchequer and local councils will be massive through reduced collection of VAT, excise duty, PAYE, National Insurance, income tax, corporation tax and local business rates will be substantial.

But Scottish Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson Mike Rumbles, whose party has long supported an outright ban, dismissed the alternative proposals for a limited ban in some parts of bars as "unworkable"​.

"Banning smoking at the bar is like allowing one lane of a swimming pool to be used as a public toilet. Ventilation or filtration does not remove the dangers of passive smoking. Air filtration cannot get rid of the smallest particles, which become lodged in people's lungs, or the harmful gases. Ventilation systems re-circulate the majority of the air and therefore do not get rid of environmental tobacco smoke."​ He continued: "A study of filtered tobacco smoke concluded that it is as potent in inducing cancer as unfiltered tobacco smoke. Faced with this evidence, government in Scotland should not impose ventilation requirements upon businesses which would cost thousands of pounds to install, hundreds of pounds to maintain and have little or no impact on the health of the nation."

But he went further in his criticisms. "I find it very depressing that some people within the leadership of Scotland's Licensed Trade Association have chosen to substitute engaging in the debate on the future of smoking within enclosed public places for scaremongering about the economic impact of any ban. All the evidence from places where restrictions have already been introduced shows that banning smoking in enclosed public places has little or no impact on employment."

Certainly, the evidence of the economic impact of smoking bans appears to be contradictory at best.

One English brewer and pub operator, Greene King, looks set to voluntarily introduce smoke-free pubs after one of its pubs introduced a ban earlier in July with positive results. The pub in question was one of around 260 of food-led pubs operated by Greene King under the Hungry Horse, Old English Inns and other banners, and the company is now contemplating rolling out smoking restrictions across most of this portfolio.

Smoking restrictions seem to make more sense in food-led outlets - which often cater more for family groups than hardened drinkers and smokers - but Green King will not be introducing a blanket ban even here, with only a small number of its pubs expected to bar their doors entirely to smokers.

The restrictions are also seen as winning the support of most of Greene King's customers - a move reflected by a rise in the company's shares after the announcement to restrict smoking was made.

In Ireland, however, where a smoking ban is already in place, publicans and consumers are far from content, and the licensed trade's experiences there give a clear indication of the impact of a ban on pubs which derive most of their revenues from selling beer.

Since the ban was introduced in March 2004, the sale of lager, ale and stout in Irish pubs fell by 23 million pints, according to the Irish Brewers Association, while 42 pubs in Dublin alone were put up for sale. Nearly half of them failed to find a buyer.

Indeed, figures cited by the SLTA in support of its argument suggest that Irish pub sales are down around 20 per cent in average, and that 2,000 people in Dublin alone have lost their jobs as a result of the ban.

But figures also suggest that most brewers have remained largely unaffected by the ban, with consumers simply switching from on-trade to off-trade consumption. This pattern is also used by the SLTA as evidence that an outright ban would not necessarily reduce the impact of nicotine on consumers' health, but would merely shift it into the home environment.

The SLTA also suggests that many community pubs would suffer as a result of the ban, but evidence from Ireland indicates that banning smokers from pubs does not necessarily mean a loss of custom. A survey commissioned by the Irish authorities discovered that seven out of 10 Irish consumers now enjoyed going to the pub more, while half said they were more likely to have a bar meal, suggesting that much of the business lost to smoking drinkers may yet be recouped.

Other, more technical, reasons suggest that a ban in Scotland will be difficult to implement, argue the SLTA. MSPs have jurisdiction over health in public places but a ban on smoking in pubs would not affect sports and social clubs, which are not public places, making a mockery of the rules unless the licensing laws are reformed at the same time.

The SLTA is also concerned that the ban on tobacco is simply the thin end of the wedge. First Minister McConnell has made no secret of his support for measures to reduce drinking levels in Scotland as well, in particular the binge drinking culture, and this 'double whammy' could have serious implications for thousands of Scottish pubs.

As for the rest of the UK, England and Wales are unlikely to go down the total ban route, with MPs in Westminster suggesting that a phased introduction of smoking restrictions - ironically along the lines suggested by the SLTA - would be their preferred choice.

Related topics Markets

Related news