The smoking ban

The number of pubs in Britain has been declining consistently since 1980, when there were 69,000 pubs in the country; thirty years later and the number of pubs stood at 52,000.

Of all the threats to pubs, one of the top culprits blamed for the decline in pub-going over the past few years has been the smoking ban. Scotland banned smoking in public places in the spring of 2006, with the rest of the UK following in the summer of 2007.

The timing could not have been worse. The credit crunch began to bite later that same year, there was a run on Northern Rock and by 2008 the UK economy was in recession for the first time in over 15 years. The beer duty escalator also took effect in 2008, with tax on beer rising 42% to date.

Economic misery has always been bad for the pub trade and the rate of pub closures corresponds with economic downturns. After interest rates started to spike in the late 80s, pubs were closing at the rate of 21 a week in 1989, then 25 a week in 1991 as the property bubble well and truly burst. Similarly, on average 38 pubs a week closed during the first year of the most recent recession in 2008.

All these numbers come from a report by the British Beer and Pub Association whose figures were published in The Guardian and also indicate that pub numbers increased during the boom years of the mid to late 90s.

The smoking ban alone did not cause these closures. It was a smoking ban after all, not a drinking ban, and you do have to wonder about the beer-drinking habits of smokers who insisted that it’s only natural to have a pint in one hand and a ciggie in the other because ‘it makes the beer taste better’ (an actual quote from someone commenting on a news item about the smoking ban).

Despite being a smoking ban and not a ban on smokers, it clearly has been the deciding factor in keeping many drinkers at home with their tins from the supermarket. On the other hand, since the smoking ban there are people who go to the pub more often and people who are non-smokers have always outnumbered smokers.

All this is a moot point for micropubs, because practically all of them started to open after the smoking ban took effect and they have been thriving regardless.

The only problem I envision is if the government relaxed the smoking ban: suppose separate smoking rooms were allowed in pubs, or it was decided that pubs which did not serve food could allow smoking on their premises? Hardly any micropubs would have the space for a separate smoking room and it’s doubtful any of them would agree to become an all-smoking venue. Although a micropub would therefore not benefit from an increased numbers of smokers going out, it wouldn’t lose its core regulars either.

Personally, I don’t see any relaxation in the rules happening because a primary reason for the smoking ban was to prevent pub employees from being harmed by secondhand smoke. The ‘nanny state’ may want smokers to kick the habit, but the primary intent of the legislation was for non-smokers to be protected from unwanted fumes.

On that point, it’s clear that the future for smoking in pubs is to embrace the e-cig: no smell, no ash, no secondhand smoke, no problem. Although Fullers and JD Weatherspoon have banned them, I think micropubs should welcome them, maybe even sell them as a sideline. After all, one of the best things about the micropub business model is being able to spot a niche in the market and to do things differently than the big pub chains.

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