Inside Track by Peter Martin
The move by Britain’s "big five" pub groups to take the initiative over banning smoking in pubs will be judged by the rest of the industry as either brave and far-sighted or potentially foolhardy. The five – Mitchells & Butlers, Spirit Group, Enterprise Inns, Punch and S&N Pub Enterprises – have said they would commit their pubs to banning smoking in 80% of trading areas within five years, with a ban on smoking at the bar before 2006. It is a bold, public acknowledgement that no-smoking rather than smoking should be the norm in the country’s bars and restaurants. But why have they taken such a high-profile stance now? It can be seen as simply facing the inevitable, and getting their houses in order now before the Government does it for them. Whether a principled or pragmatic act, it doesn’t matter. The bulk of pub and restaurant chains now accept, however reluctantly, that a smoking ban is inevitable – although most are reluctant, for perfectly good political reasons, to admit so in public. Most also know that further restricting smoking is not only what the Government wants, but what most of the public wants too. The question for the pub sector is when and how a ban might be phased? That’s where the political battle lies. These five, representing around a third of the country’s pubs, by going public have now set their own timetable. There must be a belief that much of the rest of the industry will now follow their lead, and that their "promise" will also help to keep the industry’s critics, including the Government, off the sector’s case. That is not guaranteed and where the risk exists. On the one hand, the five should applauded for having the courage and confidence to take the pub and restaurant trade forward. Personally, the sooner cigarette smoke disappears from the nations bars and restaurants the better. But I also know a ban will cause real hardship for many traditional pubs. The big question is can these companies actually deliver? Can Enterprise, Punch and S&N really ensure that their tenants and lessees do what they ask? Pub leaseholders are not known for their unquestioning co-operation. That’s why we currently have a Trade and Industry Select Committee enquiry into the relationship. One of the main driving forces behind the move seems to be Spirit boss Karen Jones. No-one would doubt her passion, integrity or commitment, but even she might have problems when it comes to stubbing out the fags in some of her smaller managed establishments. Is this going to be a hostage to fortune? Will the Government use any slippage to whip the industry yet again? Ministers have done it in the past over smoking benchmarks, and nothing short of an all out ban now will please the militant pressure groups like ASH. It is interesting that JD Wetherspoon, which had been in discussions with the five, apparently withdrew its support for the initiative at the last minute. It had less to do than any other operator, already being a long way down the smoke-ban road. But did it fear having its opinions too restricted by going along with such a public declaration? There is some discontent among other members of the British Beer and Pub Association about not being consulted and the high profile role its chief executive Rob Hayward has taken in apparently endorsing the initiative – even without it being BBPA policy. The concern is not really over the sentiment but the deliverability of the pledge especially in the tenanted estates. There will be arguments over the tactics, and the industry will have to continue to be wary of Government whims, even if Health Secretary John Reid now appears in affable mood, and of the broader anti-smoking lobby. But strategically, the industry has been moved on whether it likes it or not by the "big five". The truth is that even if the Government wanted an all-out ban tomorrow, it would probably take two years to implement it. Remember how long it is taking to introduce licensing reform. Legislation would not come in until after the General Election. A Bill would face opposition, especially in the House of Lords, and then there would be at least a year’s transition. There is also a lot of huffing and puffing from local councils about bans, but they do not have the power to ban smoking without primary legislation in Parliament either. There is some time. It will now be up to individual companies and operators to decide their own route.