Inside Track by Nick Bish
There is nothing like impending legislation to concentrate the mind and create division where none existed before, and this is especially true in the current smoking debate. Sports and leisure groups and the international hotel companies are at one end, with small multiples and independent licensees at the other. The essential difference is what they think a ban would do to their businesses. Big, especially publicly-listed, companies maybe accept a universal smoking ban because they believe that they can weather the storm, better than their smaller competitors. They may also believe that a likely ban has already been factored into their share price, and so there is little more to lose. Individual community and rural pubs - the vast majority - are very, very fearful that their livelihoods are now on the line. Fully one third of a recent survey by FLVA and BII said that a total smoking ban would drive them out of business. We should remember that the pub industry has been astonishingly successful at delivering smoke-free space. The Office of National Statistics tells us 46% of the public seeks out smoke-free dining; we know that nearly 60% of pubs and bars have partial or complete smoking bans. The number is rising on a daily basis. Add the investment and use of effective ventilation then you have an unarguable case for continuing self-regulation. Of course the smoking versus eating conundrum in the Health Bill is a nonsense. We are presently arguing about the content, size and temperature of bar snacks or the width in millimetres of the no-smoking bar area but this is counting angels on a pinhead. In spite of this the Bill might just be made to work if the exemptions were permanent - but we know that its stated intention is to ban smoking in all enclosed workplaces with the exemptions to be reviewed (cancelled by ministerial decree) in 3 years. Which may well mean a universal smoking ban from 2010. One justification for the Health Bill is that a ban on smoking in enclosed workplaces will reduce adult smoking to 21% from the present 25%, but to date there is certainly no discernible reduction in the number of smokers in Ireland. The staff health argument is valid, but only up to a point because even the government admits that the impact of passive smoking is unproven, and no-smoking at the bar and effective ventilation resolve most of the issues. The government should not therefore be surprised that pub owners resent having their livelihoods put at risk for a public health experiment with such marginal and uncertain benefits. No company or trade association should be calling for a ban. We do not have a duty to improve the broader public health - but we do have to act in the commercial best interests of our organisations or members, including of course staff and customers. The government should think carefully before getting our industry to pay for a public health experiment with staff jobs and licensees' livelihoods. They should look carefully at the impact in Scotland about a year after the ban and at the very least provide support for those whose businesses might fail as a result of legislation in England. Above all they should work with us to continue building smoke-free businesses rather than push pubs over the precipice with an ill thought through ban. Nick Bish is chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers This article is included in the forthcoming Focus Report: the proposed smoking ban - potential impact for the UK leisure industry. Brought to you by William Reed Business Intelligence, the publisher of M&C Report, the report, which would normally cost £199, is available to readers of M&C Online and M&C Report, for jus £99. For further information, or to order a copy, please call 01293 846510