No smoke without fire

If new proposals on passive smoking at work by the Health & Safety Executive are implemented, it could signal a big shake-up in the pubs and restaurants sector.

Smoking is as much part of pub culture as drinking. But the situation could change following the Health & Safety Executive’s proposed guidelines on passive smoking in the workplace. The recommendation for an Approved Code of Practice will be relayed to Government Ministers and could be accepted next year.

Although special status has been assigned to the hospitality industry, the plans could mean that pubs, restaurants and other businesses will be forced to ban smoking if employers are unable to protect their employees from the effects of smoking.

At the moment, many licensed retailers are signed to the voluntary Charter on Smoking in Public Places, instituted last year. This encourages operators to invest in ventilation systems, implement no-smoking areas and display external signs informing customers of the establishment’s policy on smoking. Compliance with this will count as complying with the legally-enforceable ACOP for two years.

Nick Bish, chief executive of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, suggests the big problem for the industry is the speed with which it is going to have to turn things around to satisfy the demands of the ACOP. “We had reckoned on getting 50 per cent of pubs and restaurants charter-compliant by the beginning of 2003. To get all these ACOP-compliant by next year is just too challenging,” he says.

The implications for the hospitality industry could be far reaching. Research suggests that around 45 per cent of pub customers smoke – a big chunk of the industry’s client base it can’t afford to alienate. Issues of cost and time in meeting the demands of the ACOP are clear, but the bottom line, says Martin Rawlings, director of retail at the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association, is that the sector will suffer.

“The implications will be felt across the industry. Lots of pubs are shutting and this will accelerate the process. If you’re a small independent pub and you have to spend thousands of pounds on a ventilation system and perhaps find you can’t get planning permission or the design aspects of the building won’t allow it, you’re going to sell up,” he says.

Rawlings points to the small number of pubs that have tried to impose smoking bans. “They don’t find smokers replaced by a set of new, non-smoking customers. Instead, business falls, so they bring back smoking.”

Bish believes banning smoking will not be an option most pubs and restaurants will have to take and suggests adequate ventilation as a suitable solution for protecting employees. The cost to install a simple entry-level system is not too high, though it rises significantly for more sophisticated systems. “We’ve done research into community pubs which installed ventilation systems and looked at their client turnover before and after installation to see if the cost could be recovered. The results were favourable,” he says.

This evidence is supported by JD Wetherspoon, which is not signed to the PPC, but has had segregated areas for smokers since 1992. “We didn’t introduce these for political or health reasons, though we are pleased about the health implications. We did it for commercial reasons, our logic being that we could attract people who didn’t want to sit in a smoke-polluted environment, but at the same time not alienate our smoking customers,” says spokesman Eddie Gershon. Every pub has between 25-30 per cent of its space designated no-smoking, including the toilets and the area around the bar. In addition, each premises has spent £100 000 on installing a ventilation system and also has clear signage warning customers what to expect and where they can smoke.

Clearly defined no-smoking areas amount to timber flooring, raised areas, sunken floors, and so on. The areas tend to be away from the front of the pub and toilets and other places where drinkers walk around with cigarettes, and adjacent to gardens where possible. Non-smoking galleries have been tried in the past, but are seen as too anti-social.

So to what extent can the design of a premises help to limit smoke circulating? Gillian McArthur, director at Lawrence Tring, which designs around 60 per cent of JD Wetherspoon pubs, believes layout segregates non-smokers but offers a placebo effect rather than providing a scientific guarantee of a totally smoke-free area. “The design aspect works well and customers feel relaxed, as they know they’re sitting among other non-smokers. Visual clues such as ashtrays turn non-smokers off and we can provide defined areas where this doesn’t occur,” she says.

According to one industry analyst at UBS Warburg, it is unclear whether the customer base of pubs implementing a change in smoking policy will alter significantly, though the experience of JD Wetherspoon seems to suggest that it should stay consistent. McArthur thinks smokers aren’t deterred from pubs with smoking policies, as restrictions may apply, but they are not overbearing and smokers can still buy and smoke cigarettes in the pub.

Conran & Partners, whose founder Sir Terence Conran famously enjoys a cigar or two, already takes measures to protect employees and customers from smoke in Conran restaurants, but it does not impose restrictions on smoking. “Our ventilation systems are state-of-the-art and exceed building regulations. The systems extract vertically, making it comfortable for everybody,” says consultancy associate director Sarah Aldridge.

Smokers are also seated away from non-smokers where possible and menus urge smokers to consider those around them; policies that work well, says Aldridge, who adds that there are no plans to re-design existing restaurants to accommodate future guidelines. “We don’t want to send smokers to a dark corner of the restaurant. Smoking is part of the pleasure of eating out,” she says.

There is no need for publicans to get burnt fingers on this issue and the majority who operate within it will cope satisfactorily, but at a price. To satisfy the demands of the ACOP the cost to the hospitality industry is put at £1.8bn over 25 years. This is a conservative estimate and it’s likely that small independent businesses will be the first to be stubbed out by costs.

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