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Set your sights now for when the smoke clears

19 January 2006

Scotland is the first UK country to enforce a total smoking ban, soon to be followed by Northern Ireland and Wales. So what should operators be doing to prepare - and should England follow? Rosalind Mullen reports

The proposals for a partial smoking ban in England have been dubbed "unworkable" and "muddled". But when Scotland enforces its smoking ban on 26 March, there will be no room for confusion. Smoking will be outlawed in all places of work, including pubs, bars, restaurants and clubs - the only exemptions being in specially designated hotel bedrooms.

While Scotland's hospitality operators have mixed feelings about the ban, most now accept that an anti-smoking trend has already taken hold. Many hoteliers in particular have already "bitten the bullet".

General manager James Fraser recently reopened the refurbished 83-bedroom Macdonald Marine Hotel & Spa North Berwick as a non-smoking property. His team have been notifying guests about this in advance and say bookings have not been affected. It has also been a hit with staff.

"Even if staff smoke, they don't want to be breathing it in for an eight-hour shift," Fraser says.

No-smoking policy
Restaurateurs tend to be relaxed, too. Tony Singh, chef-proprietor at Oloroso in Edinburgh, has always had a no-smoking policy in the dining room but has now extended it to the bar. It has been well received, but he foresees short-term problems when the total ban hits. "There will be a knee-jerk reaction," Singh predicts. "But it won't affect business in the long-term."

Publicans are more cynical. Rural pubs, many of which are already struggling, fear that customers will simply drink at home. "I am worried about it," admits Kenny MacDonald, manager of the Clutha Vaults in Glasgow. "We're applying for a pavement licence but I don't think we'll get it. There's a lot of red tape."

Big pub companies such as Punch have tackled bureaucracy head-on, already issuing their publicans with information packs on how to implement a smoke-free policy, including customer signage, staff notices and window stickers. "We believe there are solutions for even the most landlocked pubs," says customer services director Francis Patton. "Being fully prepared will give us a competitive edge."

So, while there is concern, it's a far cry from the panic that greeted the smoking ban imposed in Ireland in March 2004. That's because many British operators have seen for themselves that business there has now steadied.

Sales in pubs dropped by 6.3% in the first nine months of the Irish ban, according to figures from the country's Central Statistics Office (CSO). But the decline was already in train, caused by rising prices, a tougher policy on drink-driving and the fact that the Celtic Tiger seemed to be losing its roar.

Proof that the situation has settled comes in the Retail Sales Index figures from the CSO, which show that, in July 2005, the volume of retail bar sales was 5.1% up on 2004 and the value of sales rose by 6.4%.

Eddie Cassidy, divisional organiser of Irish pub workers' union Mandate, adds that a survey by Trinity College found that health has already improved among pub workers.

Not all see such a rosy picture, however. The Vintners' Federation of Ireland, which represents more than 6,000 rural publicans, says it has anecdotal evidence that rural pubs have been badly affected, with turnover down on average by 10-15%.

Concern
Back in Scotland, this is cause for concern. Patrick Browne, chief executive of the Scottish Beer & Pub Association, says: "Looking at Ireland, we expect that turnover in pubs will fall by 7% over three to six months."

In the anti-smoking camp, however, campaigners argue that the initial expected decline in business will be followed by a swift turnaround.

"At least 70% of people don't smoke and many don't go to pubs because of the smoke, so there's a huge opportunity to lure them back," says Maureen Moore, chief executive at anti-smoking organisation Ash Scotland.

Like it or loathe it, operators in Scotland, and across the UK, need to prepare now for a ban. Northern Ireland and Wales will most likely follow suit and, as Caterer goes to press, a ban on smoking in England looks increasingly likely.

More importantly, it's what the customer wants. A new opinion poll by You Gov has found that 67% of Britons reckon all pubs and bars should be smoke-free.

Gearing up for 26 March

Non-compliance will incur fixed penalties initially, then fines as high as £2,500, and ultimately could result in you losing your licence - so get prepared.

  • Get planning permission in place for beer gardens and pavement seating.
  • Consider creating an open-air rooftop space for smokers.
  • Order braziers for outdoors.
  • Think of ways to broaden your customer base - for example, improve the food offer, or target families.
  • Hoteliers intending to designate bedrooms for smoking should contact their environmental health officer to check ventilation systems are adequate.
  • Display no-smoking notices visible to all employees and customers.
  • Start removing ashtrays gradually now.
  • Get a policy in place to deal with anyone who persists in smoking.
  • If you are struggling, approach your relevant trade association for help.
  • For more information, log on to websites such as: www.clearingtheairscotland.com; www.ashscotland. org.uk; or www.scottish.parliament.uk
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