Britain’s new anti-smoking laws leave proponents on both sides of the debate unhappy, and indicate disagreement within Prime Minister Tony Blair’s own party.
Widespread reports of squabbling over the issue in cabinet prompted analysts to wonder whether Blair, having set the clock ticking on his departure, is losing his iron grip over his government.
Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt announced the ban would cover most – but not all – of England’s pubs, bars and restaurants. That would put England at odds with Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. All have either fully banned smoking in public places or announced plans to do so.
Blair and key ministers broke with other UK countries because of a desire to protect what they call “one of the few pleasures” poor people can afford.
Anti-smoking groups were outraged with England’s bill, saying it did not go far enough while pub management groups warned it could slash their profits and harm the industry.
Under the new bill, smoking would be banned in restaurants and bars where food is served but private clubs will be exempt and pubs serving no food will be able to choose whether to allow smoking or not.
A survey by industry magazine The Publican indicated at least 20% of pubs would opt to serve smokers rather than food. The publican also warned that “thousands of pubs could be forced to close” because they cannot compete with private members’ clubs.
The British Beer and Pub Association, which represents around 60% of the 53,000 pubs in England and Wales – some 80% of which serve food – said the ban is “grossly unfair” to pubs trying to compete with the 22,000 private clubs.
“How does this square with the government’s alcohol policy, which is supposedly trying to encourage more food in pubs?” chief executive Rob Hayward said.