I hate smokers. Not because of the habit: no, it’s the endless whingeing, the dreadful and utterly unwarranted claims to victimhood, the going on and on, tediously, like 15-year-olds, “’Snot fair! Why can’t we smoke in pubs? ’Snot fair!”, the hysterical over-reactions against anyone who suggests that, actually, pubs (and restaurants, and cinemas, and workplaces) are vastly pleasanter places now that smoking is banned, the constant attempts to use the “slippery slope” fallacy to get drinkers to support the campaign to end or amend the pub smoking ban, the false claims that it’s all the fault of supporters of the smoking ban that so many pubs have been closing.
Let’s deal with the “slippery slope” first. It is claimed that the attack on tobacco, if allowed to be successful, will be followed by an even greater attack on alcohol, and therefore drinkers should support smokers in opposing tobacco bans – “It’ll be you next.” But if a slippery slope going from complete freedom to choose our own risks to complete risk regulation exists, shouldn’t the smokers have been fighting further back up that slope years ago, defending the rights of drivers who didn’t want to wear seatbelts, and, before that, motorcyclists who didn’t want to wear helmets? If, somehow, everyone from moped riders to Harley-Davidson owners was still allowed to ride around the UK with the wind rushing through their hair, the government and safety campaigners having conceded the right of every rider to choose to wear a helmet or not, would that have helped prevent the smoking ban? Of course not.
And if drinkers need to be defending smokers’ “rights” as an important step in defending their own right to consume alcohol, how exactly would that have helped prevent, eg, prohibition in the United States? Was there a smoking ban in the US first, which led inexorably to a drinking ban as well? You’ll not need to look up the answer, I think.
What about the “it’s your fault pubs are closing” argument? Here we have to go into some lengthy historical analysis: stick with me. First, pubs have been closing at greater or lesser rates for the past 120 years. It’s difficult, unfortunately, to give precise figures for pub numbers in the past, in large part, over recent years, because of the problem in deciding what proportion of premises with full on-licences are actually pubs and not, eg, hotels, and partly because commentators do not always make it clear if they are talking about the UK total or the England and Wales one. But looking back, between 1894 and 1904 the number of public houses in England and Wales fell by almost 4,000, from over 105,000 to 99,500, 7.7 closures a week. Between 1904 and 1914, when there was a concerted drive by licensing magistrates to cut back on licensed outlets, the number dropped again to 87,700, a rate of 24 a week.
The First World War and after saw pub numbers continue to fall at a rate of more than a dozen a week, so that by 1930 there were 77,300 left. During the 1930s the rate of closure slowed to eight a week, leaving 73,600 pubs in 1939. Despite the Second World War, though, when hundreds of pubs were destroyed in bombing, the arrival in the 1950s of the New Towns seems to have helped stabilise pub numbers, so that in 1953 the total was just 400 lower than it had been 14 years earlier.
From the mid-1950s, however, the increasing pace of brewery mergers seems to have led to a requickening in pub closures, so that from 71,000 in 1956 – the year Britain finally received its second television channel, giving people even more reason to stay at home – the total slipped to 69,000 in 1962, a loss of just under 10 pubs a week, and fell at a slightly higher pace to 1972, when there were some 63,700 pubs in England and Wales.
However, as the “baby boomers” reached drinking age, the pub closure rate slowed dramatically again, to barely 3.5 a week, though even so by 1988 the pub total for England and Wales had fallen to 60,800, less than two thirds the pre-First World War total.
Closure rates stayed at more or less the same level for the next decade and a half, so that in the UK as a whole in 1989 there were some 68,000 pubs, and by 1996 that figure was down to 65,000 – 3.8 closures a week. Over the next six years, however, perhaps under the impact of the growth of the giant pubcos, the pace picked up considerably, rising more than fivefold to an average of 20 a week, so that by 2002 there were 58,600 pubs remaining. The rate then slowed again, to around only four a week, so that in 2007 – the year the smoking ban was introduced – national pub numbers had dropped to 57,500.
Quickly the closure rate picked up again, so that, according to the British Beer and Pub Association, pubs were closing at a rate of 27 a week in 2007. By July 2009, the BBPA was saying that more than 50 pubs were closing every week in Britain, equal to more than seven a day, leaving just 53,500 still open. However, in the past three years the closure rate has slowed dramatically again, with Camra stating last month that it had fallen to 12 a week.
Assuming some 4,500 pubs in Scotland, there are now around 49,000 pubs in England and Wales, a number that has fallen at an average of just over nine pubs a week for the past 118 years. You can argue – and I’m sure many will – that nine closures a week as a proportion of 105,000 pubs is only half the same number of closures as a proportion of 49,000 pubs. But it’s unarguable that closures, sometimes faster than today’s rate, sometimes slower, have been a feature of Britain’s pub scene since before Queen Victoria had her golden jubilee. The period from the beginning of the 1970s to the mid-1990s, when most of today’s smoking pub-goers started using pubs, was actually an anomaly, a 25-year period when pub closures were only a third of the long-term rate.
So: was the surge in pub closures between 2007 and 2011 because of the smoking ban? The problem is that just as the smoking ban came in, pubs were attempting to deal with a host of other problems, some medium to long-term, which had already (remember) caused a surge in pub closures in the years either side of the Millennium, some sudden – the Great Recession, as I suspect history will call it, which hit in 2008 and does not look to be over yet. Those other problems include:
- Continued vicious competition from supermarkets for the “alcohol pound”
- Constantly rising costs, from taxes to wages to rents to utilities
- Falling levels of alcohol consumption
- Rising pressures on consumers’ leisure time and leisure spending
With all that and a howling recession, working out what proportional part the smoking ban may have played in pub closures after 2007 is, I suggest, somewhere between tricky and almost impossible. The peak closure period was when the economy was suffering most. Would more pubs have survived if smokers had been allowed to smog up the snug? The pub-going smokers’ lobby acts as if no pubs at all would have closed in the past five years, Their claim is that a total of just over 10,000 have put up the shutters in that time: I don’t know where that figure comes from, since this month Mike Benner of Camra said 4,500 pubs had closed since 2008. That’s 21 a week: not much more than the closure rate between 1996 and 2002, when you could still puff away freely inside the pub if you wished. So: evidence that the smoking ban is a major cause of the pub trade’s woes is a very long way from conclusive. Case not proved.
Of course, the pub smokers’ lobby will insist that in this case, correlation and causation line up, though, curiously, when it comes to the impact of second-hand smoke on the health of non-smokers, they will insist that correlation doesn’t prove causation at all. Indeed, it’s the insistence on their own “rights” as smokers while refusing to admit that non-smokers have the right to not have their health placed in jeopardy that angers me most of all. Earlier this year a young Irish boy called Fionn O’Callaghan, aged seven, spoke to the Irish Senead as part of a campaign to ban smoking in cars when children are present. A pro-smoking blog immediately labelled the event “nauseating”, with commentators demanding “forcible sterilisation of this repulsive child’s parents”, and attacking “disgusting anti-smoker exploitation of children”, with one smoker declaring: “Smoking bans are born from snobbery and hate and they have no basis in health.” A few days later the following news item appeared:
Children exposed to their parents’ cigarette smoke are at greater risk of suffering serious cardiovascular health problems later in life, a study showed Wednesday.
The Menzies Research Institute in Tasmania collected data from a Finnish and Australian study following children first examined 20 years ago who are now in their mid-30s.
It found that those exposed to passive smoke as youngsters have less elasticity in their arteries, an indicator of poor cardiovascular health.
The saddest problem with the pub smoking lobby is that they will not simply stick their fingers in their ears and insist they can’t hear you when presented with evidence like that. They will instead attack the messenger as “ignorant and bigoted”, a “pathetic smokerphobe”, a “hateful and spiteful zombie”, and, gloriously, a “self-righteous bigoted intolerant left-wing sycophant for Stalin”.
Indeed, I look forward to seeing precisely how long it takes for the comments section below to fill up with bulging-eyed, red-faced responses from smokers attacking my ancestry, my manhood and my (presumed) politics. Even though I’ve just outlined how predictable their response will be, they won’t be able to resist: they’re smokers, after all. They won’t hear what they don’t want to, and they can’t turn down any chance to present themselves as poor sorry victims of “anti-smoking Stalinists”.