The McNanny State: How the smoking ban closed Scottish pubs

The McNanny State: How the smoking ban closed Scottish pubs

by Brian Monteith
article from Friday 27, July, 2018

IT WAS SUNDAY 26 March 2006. Nothing much seemed different from the previous weekend. The Old Firm had won their matches, the weather was poor, and the odd empty beer can tumbled down the road. But it wasvery different, very different indeed. The UK’s first ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces was now in force in Scotland and suddenly people were standing huddled outside their local haunts sparking up and blethering away while trying to keep warm.

There was a sense of curious expectancy about; would smokers blow up at bar staff telling them to step outside or put their smokes away? Would the police be called to adjudicate and even make arrests where tempers flared? I had certainly thought it a risk and had said as such. In the end it passed, not with a bang or a whimper, but with silence. So stigmatised and marginalised, so hectored and humiliated had smokers become from the constant barrage of publicly funded criticism that they simply shrugged their shoulders and stepped outside, mostly without complaint. They were used to being treated this way.

Crucially the Scottish hospitality industry was divided on the proposed smoking ban. The Scottish Licensed Trade Association was only helpful up to a point, ostensibly against the ban in pubs, it would not countenance any possibility of exemptions for private clubs, no doubt fearing customers would clamour to get into the relatively small number of working men’s clubs, bowling clubs, golf clubs and the like. It was a self-defeating strategy as the comprehensive ban simply became a plague on all houses, and bars in all sectors closed. Had the SLTA been able to support and convince the Scottish Executive to allow some exemptions, possibly on the basis of a licensing agreement that required a minimum air quality standard, this might later have been used as a means to extend the exemption into pubs that also met the same standard. The SLTA held firmly against exemptions to protect pubs against clubs – it thus became every publican for him or herself.

Even in the most disreputable and violent of bars, punters knew their place. After all, they were often joined by bar staff too, taking a break. The decision to make the policing of the law the job of owners was the key factor; smokers would rail at the state intrusion, openly curse First Minister Jack McConnell, but they did not blame the landlady or landlord – they were simply doing their job and no-one wanted to see a fine of £2,000 going to the authorities.

Soon it even became fashionable to step outside. The running joke was that the conversation was always better with the smokers who were having a laugh than with those staring at their pints inside the howf. It was not unusual for non-smokers to step outside too, just for the craic. Indeed I even knew a few lapsed puffers who would cadge a smoke off mates to be part of the company.

Practically all publicans had clearly been unsure how to react themselves. There was practically no investment in smokers’ facilities, few smoking terraces or covered areas. It really was down to good luck if a pub had an outside area that it could set aside for smokers. Eventually one or two owners cottoned on that if they had even half-decent arrangements, maybe some wicker seats, an awning or parasol – better still a heater or three – that they would attract new customers looking out for a bar that had good smoking facilities. Within a year or two there were various awards for the best outdoor smoking facilities being handed out at licensed trade events.

Throughout the debate about introducing the smoking ban its advocates continued to peddle the idea that pubs would benefit, a Cancer UK survey said it had found 24 per cent of adults surveyed had said they were now more likely to visit a pub than before, while 10 per cent said they were less likely. Jean King, Cancer Research UK's director of tobacco control, said, “Making pubs and bars smoke-free gives workers the protection they deserve and creates a more appealing place to go to for your social drink with friends.” But a clearly irritated Paul Waterson, CEO of the SLTA, responded tersely, “How organisations like Cancer Research, from the pro-lobby group in the run up to the ban, can suddenly become experts on the licensed trade - they should stick to their own area. We said before the ban came in that there would be winners and losers in business, but that there would be more losers. And so far that would seem to be the case.” He was right.

Inside Scotland’s pubs the situation was quite different. The lack of smoke waspopular with many customers – including some smokers themselves, despite the inconvenience of them being unable to light up – although many pubs now offered different smells that the cigarette smoke no longer masked. Unfortunately this change in atmosphere did not work for everyone and the regulars who were abandoning pubs were not being made up for by new customers. For publicans the problem was marked, very quickly punters were clearly deciding to stay away, no longer to sit and have a chat over a drink and a smoke they were staying home, drinking cheaper booze and siting in the comfort of their own home. 

Trade dropped. Pubs closed. 

Most noticeably it was usually the pubs that served local communities that were most affected, with town centre bars always more likely to attract passing trade and revellers out for the night. The higher retail and office driven footfall also meant town centre bars could justify offering profitable food to offset the loss of alcohol sales, where there simply wasn’t the demand for it in residential areas. Scotland’s pub estate changed but it also declined. This is a fact repeatedly denied by the Smoke Police but the tables below show the truth of the matter.

In a 2009 UK survey 17 per cent of adults said they were more likely to go to a pub than before the smoking bans that had by the end of 2007 spread across the whole country – against 14 per cent who said they were less likely to do so – a potential 3 per cent growth in custom. Unfortunately for landlords, when the same question was asked only of smokers – whose number amongst pub customers was, until the smoking bans, double the proportion of adults who smoke and therefore around half of many pubs’ customers – the position was reversed, with 25 per cent of smokers less likely to go to pubs than before the ban and only 11 per cent more likely – a potential loss of 14 per cent. 

The effect can be seen in Table 1, demonstrating how the pub estate was essentially stable before the bans and then dramatically declined after them.

Be it Scotland, England, Wales – and Ireland – whose ban came in first in 2004 – the trend was aligned. By placing a timeline of the number of pubs in the different jurisdictions so that the introduction of the smoking bans is at the same axis point it can be seen (in Table 2) that the trend matches closely and crucially starts before the ‘great recession’ of 2008. Following eleven quarters the pub estate had declined in Scotland by 7.1 per cent, in Wales by 7.3 per cent and in England by 7.6 per cent.

In December 2004 the Scottish pub estate stood at 6,677 and by the time of the ban on 26 March 2006 it had fallen to only 6,610 – a loss of only 1.1 per cent – but within four years of the ban it had dropped by 11.1 per cent. Twelve years on and it has since fallen to 4,645 in 2017, a drop of 29.7 per cent. While there will have been other factors at play, such as the rise in beer duty, tighter drink drive limits and an economic recession (now long passed) the trend in pub closures can clearly be seen to have predated all of those factors and commences around the point of the introduction of smoking bans. The claim that the smoking ban had no effect on pub numbers is baseless. It had exactly the impact that the licensed trade warned about, and to what benefit?

The purpose of the Bill to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces was ostensibly to protect people, especially those who worked in such confined areas, from environmental cigarette smoke (both smoke breathed in and exhaled and slipstream smoke from burning cigarettes, pipes and cigars) – this however was only part of the agenda. As the Health Secretary, Andy Kerr, repeatedly made clear the goal was to “denormalise” smokers.

“The keynote provisions in the bill are the provisions that will deliver a smoke-free Scotland. They will protect the people of Scotland from second-hand smoke, improve public health and denormalise smoking in our society.” 

There was no evasion, no embarrassment – smokers were being targeted and attacked by the state by making them pariahs. The need to denormalise smoking was shared by the SNP’s Shona Robison who also explained why she thought it necessary:

“Just as important, it will also have long-term benefits, because it will denormalise cigarette smoking. I have said all along that, for me, that is probably the most important element of the bill. The ban will have a huge impact on future generations. We know that far too many children perceive smoking as a normal activity because everyone around them smokes. It is important for society to put across a different message and tell those children that smoking is not a normal activity and that they should not take it up. The bill provides that important counterbalance in those children‘s lives.”

Strange, then, that the obvious consequence was not to denormalise smoking per sebut to denormalise smoking indoors. In fact the Bill went further and normalised smoking outside, for now children could see adults not just as they always had, when walking along the street with a lit cigarette, but now congregating outside pubs, bars and cafes, when previously they were hidden from view indoors. Even more absurdly these adults looked like they were having a good time; they were chatting away to each other, having a laugh, so obviously enjoying each other’s company – not just smoking as they walked along the street. Alternatively they were socialising – and smoking – at home in front of the kids.

The other consequence was to continue the attack on smokers. By seeking to denormalise smoking – the smokers must also be denormalised too. This is not so much how it would have been seen by children, but for adults the effect was to see adults being stigmatised, made pariahs in their own locals.

There is only one word to describe the approach of the Health Minister and his supporters of the denormalisation of smoking and smokers – zealotry. No quarter was given, no amendment allowed for special dispensations, extenuating circumstances or exceptions that might make smoking appear an everyday or normal practice. 

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