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Clear the fog on the smoking rules

12 October 2006

Consultation on England's smoking ban closed on Monday, giving operators their final chance to influence Government policy ahead of next summer's implementation. One major theme dominated the response - the need for consistency and clarity in the regulations.

The early signs are not good. Looking at the first draft, the Government appears not to have learned lessons from last year's licensing legislation, which was poorly drafted and rushed through.

Councils across England and Wales have interpreted the licensing laws in hugely different ways, creating difficulties at both local level and for chain operators, which have been unable to adopt a standard approach nationally. Industry bodies fear a repeat is imminent with the smoking ban, warning that the first draft of the regulations is "unclear and vague".

They point to fallout in Scotland, where weak definitions led to councils developing their own individual polices, leading to confusion and delays in planning permission for "covered" outside areas.

Operators in England are particularly concerned about the definition of areas that are "substantially enclosed", pointing out that a large umbrella or awning could be classified as a roof.

And it might not stop there. Westminster City Council wants the definition of a "substantially enclosed" space to be extended to "space in which an individual's choice to move is compromised". In other words, banning smoking on the street outside the establishment.

Without consistent and robust regulations, this and other extreme interpretations of the law could become commonplace.

This links in to another major industry concern about the system of fines for operators found flouting the ban. It's verging on the ridiculous that a licensee could face a £2,500 fine for failing to spot someone lighting up on their premises. Something around the £200 mark, as used in Scotland, would be fairer.

But it's important to retain perspective about the smoking ban. Greene King reported that pubs in Scotland suffered a smaller knock on revenues than feared, while Mitchells & Butlers and JD Wetherspoon both revealed soaring food sales in Scottish pubs.

If the regulations are properly drafted, there's no reason why hospitality businesses in England and Wales can't use the smoking ban to their advantage, attracting new customers and boosting revenue.

By Daniel Thomas, News editor, Caterer and Hotelkeeper

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