UK Smoking Ban Stumbles

fogel.jpgIt seems that the UK Government’s proposed ban on smoking in public places is faltering

Intellectually, I find it hard to justify a smoking ban in private businesses.  It should be for the owner of a bar or restaurant to decide if he or she wants to allow smoking or not, and for customers to choose the establishment that meets their preferences. 

Here in California, smoking is not allowed in bars or restaurants, and the improvement in quality of life for me is substantial. I can go out to a bar and have a few drinks without coming home smelling like an ashtray and having to wash everything from my jeans to my sweater.  I actually enjoy spending time out in clubs now; with the result that I go out to bars more often here than I would in London.

You would think that there are enough people like me who would choose a smoke-free environment that some pubs and clubs would allow smoking and others would not, and then we could choose where to go to.  Something like this works for coffee bars already: in London, Starbucks does not allow smoking and Caffe Nero does: it is a free market, and I can choose which I want to go to.  So why doesn’t it work the same way for pubs, restaurants, and clubs?  But for some reason it doesn’t happen – I am not aware of any non-smoking pubs and restaurants in London.

I am with Third Avenue on this (perhaps not surprisingly, as we are both Brits living in America).  Though intellectually I think there should be a choice, the improvement in quality of life from a smoking ban is much larger than I would have expected; the market does not in fact provide the choice; and I would vote for a ban.

I don’t understand why the UK is finding it hard to put together legislation.  There are well-functioning examples here in New York and in California, and as I understand it, the ban in Ireland works OK too – so how hard can it be?

Published by Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and

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13 Comments

  1. Something like this works for coffee bars already: in London, Starbucks does not allow smoking and Caffe Nero does: it is a free market, and I can choose which I want to go to. So why doesn’t it work the same way for pubs, restaurants, and clubs?

    It’s simple – pubs and clubs are much more social places than coffee houses, and cool people smoke. So, pubs and clubs that ban smoking attract a duller clientele and have difficulty booking decent entertainment. I’ve no idea why it doesn’t work in restaurants, though.

  2. I just don’t get the libertarian argument here. Smoking kills, not only those who choose to smoke (and therefore drive themselves to an early grave), but also, almost uniquely, those who live, work and travel alongside them.

    If it wasn’t for Big Tobacco (including BAT, the company run by Ken Clarke) then smoking would have been banned on public health grounds years ago. The upcoming smoking ban in Scotland (due to begin in March 2006) is a direct result of pressure from doctors, trade unions and, crucially, public opinion.

    The Irish model[PDF file only] has shown a sharp reduction in exposure to CO by bar workers, and overwhelming public support. Bar owners cite declining sales, but this is a continuation of a longer-term trend with no change in the rate of decline since the smoking ban.

    Bring it on!

  3. Considering the current situation here in Scotland regarding the lack of choice for non-smokers I find the idea that we can all get along without rocking the boat, naive in the extreme. No offence intended. Owen, I’ve come very close to being assaulted on public transport, where signs clearly warned of a £500 fine for smoking, when asking to breathe clean air. Being reasonable and fair-minded (here) doesn’t work with drug-addicts which, after all, is what smokers are.

  4. The lack of non-smoking pubs & clubs doesn’t mean people have no choice at all. Rather, they don’t have the choices they’d like most. Not necessarily grounds for legislation.

    I’m not a smoker, I appreciate the damage smoking can do and dislike having to wash everything I’m wearing just because I was out for a few hours. Still, it’s hard to understand those who act as if smoke-free pubs and clubs are some sort of human right.

  5. The theory of this does not sound very difficult. Most people think they should be allowed to smoke in their own homes, where the only people they affect are themselves or people who choose to be there. Most people think that smoking should not be allowed where the negative spillover effects fall on people who do not have a choice about being there – for example, in a hospital ward.

    Which leaves a lot of places which fall somewhere in between. I am glad that smoking is not permitted in trains or on the Underground, even though I could in principle choose some other form of transport.

    If I choose to sit in Caffe Nero, however, I really am exercising a free choice to go to a place that I know people will smoke. If I don’t like that, I can go to Starbucks instead. I can’t see a case for requiring Caffe Nero to ban smoking, since everyone there has made an informed decision to be among smokers. (I am assuming that the staff in coffee shops could find alternative work elsewhere at roughly the same salary.)

    The imponderable problem is pubs, clubs and restaurants. If there was a choice – a reasonable selection of venues that you could go to that did not allow smoking – then anyone going to a smoke-filled pub would be exercising a choice. But for some reason such establishments do not exist. Is that because nobody wants them (in which case they should not be forced up on us)? Or is it for some other reason which should be corrected with legislation?

    I repeat the point in my earlier post. I really like the fact that pubs, restaurants and coffee shops in California do not allow smoking. But I am uncomfortable about banning it.

  6. Not sure where you’ve been going then. I worked in a pub oooh, 25 years ago, in Bath which was 50% non-smoking. And very efficiently policed and ventilated. I had lunch last week in a non-smoking restaurant in London, within the Division Bell area, you might know it Owen, Quirinale.

  7. I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ‘stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) – which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.

    So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban – and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms – is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place /precisely when it’s no longer necessary/.

    *Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class- correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time – and not in a good way, either.

  8. Apart from the ‘theoretical’ possibility that non-smokers (who enjoy a beer or a gig) are able to avoid smoke if they really want to. Has anyone thought of the potential health benefits for both non-smokers and smokers?

    The price of ‘inconvenience’ for smokers seems small compared to the huge benefits for all in health and quality of life of a total smoking ban. Doesn’t these practical benefits overide any possible theoretical objection? As Owen’s experience in California bears out, the MNC driven opposition to a ban soon fades when the practical benefits become apparent. I notice none of you here is arguing for a return to smoking on public transport or in cinemas.

  9. Neil

    I am not sure that the improvement in the quality of life of the majority does allow us to ignore the rights of a minority, no.

    So when you say “[Don’t] these practical benefits overide any possible theoretical objection?”, I think that question would be answered differently if you had expressed it as “Does a modest improvement in the convenience of the many override the rights of the few?”.

    As a matter of interest, did cinemas eventually ban smoking because they were required by law to do so, or because of pressure from a combination of customer demand and safety requirements? I guess the latter, though I don’t know.

    I was interested to hear from Phil and Tim that there increasingly are establishments that are smoke free, or smoke free in part. I would like to see market pressures, rather than laws, force the smokers out on to the streets.

    Owen

  10. I work in the entertainment industry.

    At the last gig I did, the number of smokers far outnumbered the non-addicts.

    A straw poll in the pub (around 35 people, 30 smokers)last night revealed that if the pub banned smoking, 75% of smokers said they would not come out, even if it meant spoiling the darts & pool teams, etc. Non smokers who were asked said that if the smoking partner didn’t go out, neither would they.

    The nanny state looks likely to force a large number of businesses to close, with the inevitable fall-out spreading to artistes and bands who will no longer have venues to play.

    It should be a matter of choice for the owners and management of pubs and clubs. After all, if the “demand” for non smoking pubs was so high, why are there not more around already? There certainly isn’t one anywhere in Blackpool, which has the highest number of licensed premises outside central London.

  11. Phil

    There is of course a selection bias in your sample. The people sitting in the pub are those who smoke, or who don’t mind people who do. But to reach the conclusion that this would “force a large number of businesses to close” you need to do a poll of the large majority of people not sitting in the pub who could have been.

    I don’t go to the pub mainly because I don’t like cigarette smoke. I guess I am not the only person like this. Whether there are enough people like me to make up for the smokers who would stop going, I don’t know.

    Where I think you are on stronger ground is your point about allowing the market to decide. I rather agree with that.

    One option I haven’t seen considered: I wonder if there is a case for licensing authorities being required to manage the granting of licenses so that some premises in the area are non-smoking and some allow smoking, so that customers have a choice.

  12. Smoking in public places such as public transport (london underground) and cinemas became illegal due to fire regulations. It had nothing to do with rights or choice or a ban. Dark places with lots of old funiture and underground areas with lots of machinery don’t make a good place for a dropped cigarette!
    Smoking in pubs and bars must be left up to the owner. It is his company, his business, his choice about what type of clients he (sorry, she/he) wants. We don’t go to a coffee shop or a pub, or a restaurant unless it offers what we want. Actually, i’m wrong. Many people come into Caffe Nero in Bath and complain about the smoking. Every table is full of smokers. Who is right?? The same complainers are the one who in the end get told to go to Starbucks. They have a choice. Smokers don’t. I don’t smoke at home, I have a 3yr old child. I can only smoke in a pub or nero. I also work in a pub at night, it’s small, very old, and has a large non-smoking room. When the new law starts, many customers will leave because i’ll be outside smoking, not serving beer!
    Pubs were started as places to smoke. They were often opium dens. (city centre not ports). King James then allowed the sale of beer and fortified wines in these places, which untill then only sold coffee. He authorised the sale and consumption of ale in measured quantities to those who need to wet their mouths after a long smoke. This tradition is still going on.
    Pubs in the UK are not all the same anymore. Some are non-smoking, some are not. Some serve great beer, some don’t have a clue.
    The one privately owned pub in bath to go non-smoking, gave up after a month as they lost too much money. Non-smokers lost out on that and it was their own fault. But they still go on and on about choice!! When it’s given, they don’t take. They want me to have no choice! This is Britain. A ban is illegal, and immoral. Restrictions are fine, moderation is fine. Honest assesment, and leaving choice is fine. But next summer, I will have no choice. If i want to smoke inside i can’t…. anywhere!! How is that fair in any way? I can’t even take my beer with me when i go outside my local to have a smoke, it’s illegal to drink outside too!! Democracy? Stinks of Non Smokers Apartheid to me!

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