Smoking decision is no decision at all

28 October 2005
Smoking decision is no decision at all

Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, slams the Government muddle over smoking policy

Has any administration got itself into such a chaotic muddle as the present Government over introducing a ban on smoking in public places? Scotland made up its mind quickly; a total ban will start next year. Northern Ireland (under direct rule from Westminster, let it be noted) is to follow suit. Wales is eager to introduce a ban as soon as it can get it through the legislative process. In England? Don't ask!

The Government also claims that after three years there will be a review. But as the ban won't be introduced finally until 2007, this is kicking a final decision into the very long grass.

So we now have indecision in England when there should be a UK-wide approach, and confusion where there should be clarity.

For example, how will food that is "prepared and served" be defined? Nuts, crisps and pork scratchings can apparently be served in a non-food pub, but what about wrapped sandwiches, sausage rolls or meat pies - prepared outside the premises and sold wrapped? And does reheating those meat pies in a microwave constitute "preparation and service"?

What is meant by the bar area? Sitting on a stool by the bar? Standing two feet away? Standing four feet away? Sitting in the snug, with the bar a few feet away? Will a hotel that has a separate restaurant to the bar be able to allow smoking at the bar?

Consultation is promised on pubs introducing "discrete smoking rooms or areas to protect staff" - the so-called "cancer chambers". Without sophisticated ventilation, the atmosphere in these areas - as much a risk to the staff who will be obliged to service them as to the smokers themselves - will become too concentrated and too unpleasant to enter. How can these areas protect staff? It seems extraordinary that the Government's own health department is considering allowing such a development, given the medical evidence on the dangers of passive smoking.

What is worse, publicans will be forced to choose between food and non-food and may well go down the non-food route because of the attraction of higher profits earned on liquor sales. Fewer staff will be needed; no expensive kitchen equipment will be required; with no kitchen, more space can be given over to bar sales areas. Pubs that serve food may well see their trade seep away into the local non-food pub - or the local Working Men's Club - thus encouraging exactly what the government is committed to fighting: rising alcohol consumption and binge drinking - not to mention excessive smoking.

The Bill suggests a fine for both offenders and licensees who allow people to smoke in non-smoking premises. But who will enforce these new regulations and who will be responsible if they are broken? Who will report the offender in the first place? What part will he or she have to play in any subsequent fine?

And, in ten years' time, when incidences of cancer in bar workers in non-food pubs may begin to emerge, who might be judged liable - the Government, because it allowed smoking in the private clubs and non-food pubs in the first place, or the licensee who ran the premises legitimately under the law? Resolving these issues will keep the lawyers busy for years.

Finally, Patricia Hewitt, in her initial statement on 26 October, said that the exemptions relate to only 1% of the total UK workforce - that's actually 250,000 people. In the Commons, a day later, she said the exemptions related to 1% of workplaces. The press release announcing the Health Bill referred to workplaces in its headline but employees in the text. It's unclear where either figure comes from.

Assuming that the exemptions relate to the workplace, most of them will be in the hospitality industry. In the pub industry, it's suggested that about 20% of pubs will opt for exemption; that's nearly 12,000 establishments. In addition, there are 6,300 private members clubs that will be automatically exempted - about 18,000 establishments in all.

Those 18,000 establishments represent more than 27% of the 65,000 establishments in the total pubs, clubs and bars sector.

If Mrs Hewitt is talking about the workforce, the figures are just as bad. The pubs, clubs and bars sector employs 368,000 people. If 27% work in exempted premises, that's 100,000 staff.

So that 1%, which sounds so small when applied to the total UK workforce, begins to look much larger you think about the hospitality industry workforce - and even larger when you think about the workforce in the pubs, clubs and bar sector.

Questions, questions, questions. When new legislation is introduced, all the questions should have been answered. On this issue, they are only just beginning. A total ban would have been perfectly consistent with medical opinion; it would have raised far fewer objections; there would have been infinitely less confusion; and the industry throughout the UK would have been on an equal footing.

What's more, a total ban would have been a cleaner cut. Cleaner for staff. Cleaner for the industry. Instead, years of government dithering has produced an unhealthy compromise. Let's hope parliamentary scrutiny can reverse this non-decision.

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