February 13, 2006

England Set to Ban Smoking in Pubs from Next Year

By Kate Holton

LONDON -- England looks set to follow Ireland's lead and ban smoking in pubs when lawmakers vote on Tuesday after both health and brewing industry groups joined forces to bring it in line with the rest of Britain.

The vote follows a climbdown by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government which had previously proposed merely a partial ban, exempting private clubs and pubs which do not serve food.

That idea had incensed many lawmakers from Blair's own Labour party and prompted the government's chief health adviser Liam Donaldson to consider resigning.

In response, the government said it would allow a free vote, in which Members of Parliament (MPs) vote according to their consciences rather than on party lines.

They will now have three options: a total ban on smoking in pubs and private clubs; a ban in pubs but not private clubs and the original government plan exempting clubs and pubs which do not serve food.

There are some 20,000 private clubs and over 53,000 pubs in England and Wales, according to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA).

A partial ban would put England at odds with Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales which have either completely banned smoking in indoor public places or have announced plans to do so.

Ian Willmore of the anti-smoking campaign group ASH said he was cautiously optimistic that MPs would adopt a total ban.

"Once you've conceded the health and safety grounds, then it becomes an all or nothing case," he said. "That's why all attempts to come up with half-way houses invariably founder on the rocks of reality."


Blair's government bowed to pressure after the cross-party Health Committee led by chairman Kevin Barron put forward an amendment to remove the exemptions in the law, which is due to take effect in mid 2007.

"It looks very much like there will be a complete ban in all pubs," Barron, a Labour MP, told Reuters. "It is just whether or not the private members clubs are going to be exempt."

After initial concerns about the financial impact, Britain's pub groups said they would support a complete ban as any compromise allowing some clubs to permit smoking would put England's pubs at an unfair disadvantage.

Barron said this had had a big impact on the debate.

"They (pub industry) say an exemption on clubs will threaten local, rural pubs. The intervention of the industry has had a real effect in terms of their (MPs') thinking."

The BBPA has said pubs in Ireland saw a 15 percent drop in trade following their smoking ban and they expect to see a similar, short-term result in England.

The Health Committee had described the initial government proposal as "unfair, unjust, inefficient and unworkable" and argued the law should make all workplaces and enclosed public spaces smoke-free.

Although British scientists were the first to document the health risks of smoking, such as lung cancer, the country has been described has a "tobacco-control time warp" because so little has been done to stamp it out in public spaces.

Barron said the government had been too concerned by public opinion and not health implications.

"We've seen the practicalities of Ireland where people can still go out to the pub and have a smoke but they don't (do it) in a confined space that affects the health of others," he said.

"Ireland looked at it on the basis of the health of bar workers and I think that's what we should have done.

"They (the government) kept thinking we've got to look at public opinion. (But) public opinion ... has moved massively in favor of a comprehensive ban."