Rob Lyons is author of Road to Ruin? The impact of the smoking ban on pubs and personal choice, available here.
When the smoking ban was introduced in England ten years ago, on 1st July 2007, we were comparatively lucky. Our office boozer, The One Tun off Farringdon Road in central London, had a small backyard, about the size of an average living room, where crates and bottles of beer were kept. All that stuff was moved out, a few tables and umbrellas were installed and a smoking yard was born.
Over the years that little retreat was steadily made more comfortable – a proper awning and patio heaters were installed – and the smoking yard became a bit of a party spot on a Friday night with all sorts of different folk crammed in trying to have a drink and a smoke. Strangers became friends, friends became couples.
Other pubs and other customers were less fortunate. Those pubs were completely ‘landlocked’. They had no outside space to call their own, nowhere to provide some shelter for their smoking customers. They also had no proper kitchen so relied on selling alcohol to make money. These ‘wet-led’ pubs couldn’t absorb the loss of custom from the smoking ban by selling more food instead. They struggled and many went out of business or their owners quit and sold up.
As a result hundreds if not thousands of pubs have disappeared because the people who used to enjoy a drink and a smoke together have either gone elsewhere or stayed at home. The great British boozer has been in decline for decades, for a variety of reasons from increased alcohol duties to changing habits and tastes, but the smoking ban was the legislative equivalent of kicking a man when he’s down.
As I describe in a new report, Road to Ruin? The impact of the smoking ban on pubs and personal choice, for Forest, the smokers’ rights group, New Labour’s smoking decimated England’s pubs and hurt local communities. And as if to show how cloth-eared New Labour was to the concerns of its traditional voters, it was working-class pubs, clubs and communities that suffered the most.
A report by the University of Sheffield earlier this year found that the most economically deprived areas were the most likely to be hit by pub closures since 2007 with a 30 per cent reduction in pubs, bars and clubs located within one kilometre of England’s most socially deprived postcodes. Another report, for the Mayor of London, found that London has lost a quarter of its pubs over the past 15 years, with poorer areas like Barking and Dagenham (56 per cent) and Newham (52 per cent) seeing the most dramatic decline. The ban on smoking, while by no means solely responsible, has been a significant factor in this decline.
The state of our pubs is such that, with 11,383 fewer pubs in England alone compared to 2006, Labour’s 2017 manifesto promised ‘a national review of local pubs to examine the causes for their large-scale demise, as well as establishing a joint taskforce that will consider future sustainability’. But you can bet that the motley crew of Hugo Chavez fans and Blairite technocrats would rule out any reconsideration of the smoking ban. Indeed, it is Labour councils like Haringey in north London that have seriously considered banning smoking in pub beer gardens. This has nothing to do with the alleged risks of ‘passive’ smoking, which are non-existent in the open air. It’s about the state controlling our personal choices and ‘airbrushing’ smoking from history.
There is an opportunity here for Conservatives to resist such nanny state policies. While opinion polls claim huge support for the smoking ban these are invariably either/or polls – no smoking or a return to smoking in pubs. In contrast, polls conducted by Populus for Forest since 2015 have consistently found a small majority in favour of allowing separate, well-ventilated smoking rooms in pubs and private members’ clubs, a compromise that ought not to be beyond a Conservative administration that wishes to engage with small businesses and the general public.
The smoking ban is just the kind of policy, imposed by cliques of politicians and professional campaigners with little demand from the general public, that has generated considerable resentment among voters who feel the major parties no longer listen to them. By offering a distinctive approach built on freedom and personal choice, the Conservative Party could offer voters a clear electoral choice on these important issues.