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Smoking ban: One month on

02 August 2007 by
Smoking ban: One month on

A month into the English smoking ban, an ex-boxer has been brutally killed trying to stop three men lighting up in a London bar. Nic Paton finds out how inflammatory the legislation has proved, and how operators are dealing with customers who flout the law

Last week James Oyebola was pronounced braindead and his life support machine was switched off. The 47-year-old former British heavyweight boxer was the first victim of the English smoking ban, having been shot in the head and leg outside the Chateau 6 bar in Fulham, after asking three youths to stop smoking.

The "gentle giant", as he was described by friends, was involved in an altercation which lasted only seconds, according to police, but resulted in guns being fired, and his tragic death.

Oyebola's case is the most extreme scenario to occur so far during the piecemeal implementation of smoking bans into England, Scotland and Wales. But was this a one-off tragedy or a taste of things to come?

While there have been some, considerably lower profile exceptions (see panel opposite), by and large the ban in England appears to have come in without ruffling too many feathers. Most customers, it seems, are happy, grudgingly or otherwise, to stub out their cigarettes.

"Broadly speaking, customers have known what to expect and have complied with the law. There have been very few problems," says Mark Hastings of the British Beer & Pub Association.

Although businesses aren't responsible for reporting offenders, and local councils must enforce the law, the penalties for getting it wrong are nevertheless severe. Anyone caught smoking in an enclosed public place can be fined £50, reduced to £30 if paid within 15 days. More importantly for landlords, failing to display the required no-smoking signs can result in a £250 fine - £150 if, again, paid within 15 days.

Smooth introduction

Most seriously of all, failing to prevent someone smoking in premises that should be smoke-free can result in a court-decided fine as high as £2,500.

One reason for the generally smooth introduction of the ban in England has been that, as it came after imposition of the bans in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland, operators not only had time to prepare but had a long run-in period in which to learn what works, according to Mitchells & Butlers spokeswoman Sally Ellson. "We fully prepared our pubs for the ban," she says. "The signage went up, the internal ashtrays were removed and so on."

So far, she adds, there has been very little need for enforcement. "Where it has happened, it has usually been just a case of having to remind a customer of the ban," Ellson says.

There's a similar situation at Enterprise Inns, which is already seeing a rise in numbers of new customers. "We've had a lot of pubs saying they are seeing new customers, more families, mums with children, and that food sales are heating up," says spokeswoman Vicky Averis.

Ellson says that, in terms of training in enforcing the ban, the situation is little different to dealing with customers who have had too much to drink or become aggressive or abusive.

She says: "It's all about explaining and communicating to customers, reminding them about the penalties, that it's now the law and something they have to abide by. But, so far, for us it hasn't really been an issue."

At Enterprise, the chain has posted a download on its website (http://smoking.enterpriseinns.com) which outlines in a flowchart the actions that staff and managers should take if a customer lights up or refuses to stub out their cigarette.

Peer pressure

Dealing with a recalcitrant regular requires diplomacy and tact but also firmness, adds Hastings. He notes: "It's not rocket science, it's about talking calmly and clearly. Often, it will not even be the staff who raise it if someone is lighting up, but other customers. There is a bit of peer pressure."

Toby Smith, managing director of Laurel's pubs and bars division, says of the ban: "It has so far absolutely aligned with our experience in Scotland and Wales. The public has just taken it on board. It's as if it has been around forever.

"Across our 300 to 400 pubs, I can't say there hasn't been an instance of someone absent-mindedly lighting up, but I've had no reports of anyone aggressively defying the ban or putting staff in a difficult situation."

Nevertheless, the chain took no chances in the run-up to 1 July, communicating reams of information to landlords and staff through its regular internal newsletter.

On a more practical level, the chain put its 7,500 food and bar staff through a refresher training programme in June, which included looking at the possible effect of the ban. "It wasn't just about people lighting up," Smith says, "but also about how to deal with the expected uplift in food sales, so things like how to improve table service."

However, it also covered issues such as how to deal with customers who lit up, where people would be allowed to smoke and where not, and the legal ins and outs.

"It was things such as explaining that, when people are smoking outside, the landlord will still have direct responsibility for standards outside - cigarette butts and littering and so on," says Smith. "So we've extended the hourly toilet checks that staff carry out to the outside areas too."

The course reiterated to staff how best to defuse potential conflict situations and how to deal with customers behaving aggressively, or who are trying to mount a protest.

"So far," says Smith, "we're delighted with how well it has worked. We've had no issues with local authorities at all."

Where there's smoke

• Herefordshire licensee Tony Blows, owner of the Dog Inn at Ewyas Harold, has refused to enforce the ban, claiming that, beyond telling customers that it's against the law, he doesn't want to risk his staff's safety.

He explained to local reporters: "Because of the Health & Safety Executive's violence in the workplace legislation, I can't ask my staff to enforce the ban.

"If someone wants to light up, I will tell them it's illegal, but I can't put my staff in a position where they might be threatened with violence. If they tell someone to stop smoking and that person rears up, I'll tell them to get on with it - we're not going to enforce the law."

• Blackpool landlord Hamish Howitt, a vocal critic of the ban, could become the first in England to be prosecuted under the new laws. He's facing a fine of up to £2,500 for letting customers light up inside his Happy Scots bar.

Within days of the ban coming into force, officers from Blackpool Council had already handed out more than three £50 fixed-penalty notices.

• Smokers in Stoke-on-Trent were able to carry on smoking inside pubs after the ban came into force because a bureaucratic cock-up meant that the council didn't acquire authority to issue on-the-spot fines until after 16 July.

Although the council said that it would have the power to take retrospective action against any offenders, it stressed that its focus (at least, initially) would be on education rather than enforcement.

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