Friday 19 August 2011

Smoke And Mirrors

I've just listened to You And Yours on Radio 4. There were two branches of the leisure industry who are worried about their future: ice cream makers and amusement arcade operators, both of whom are struggling in the recession, and already there have been some bankruptcies. In both cases, tax was given as a significant factor. A new gaming machine tax will be the last straw for some businesses. Representatives of both industries cited the increase of VAT to 20% as a significant problem.

The closure of five shops in Chapel Street, Southport's second shopping street, was announced on the same day a week or two ago. More closures are expected.

Recent excursions into our local pubs have shown some pubs doing very poor business in August, the height of the holiday season in a seaside resort. Some licensees have had to lay off staff, with a few talking about leaving the business altogether.

I should have thought the reasons why the retail and leisure industries are suffering so badly would be obvious to all, the main one being the recession, with its attendant job insecurity, redundancies, wage cuts or freezes, inflation, declining living standards, and 20% VAT. But no: there are those who proclaim that the main reason why pubs are closing is still the smoking ban, introduced four years ago. They must believe that pubs are immune to all the economic pressures bearing on other industries. In fact, they have additional problems, such as pub companies ripping them off and beer tax rising every year at above inflation.

One argument is that pubs survived previous recessions without the current rate of closures, and as the one additional factor is the smoking ban, it must be that that's tipped so many pubs over the edge. You could say the same about Woolworth's - it too survived every previous recession, but closed in January 2009. As the smoking ban obviously didn't kill Woolies, there must be other factors destroying businesses in Britain today, and pubs, after all, are businesses.

In reality, the smoking ban isn't the only additional factor at all. In previous recessions, pubs didn't have rip-off pubcos running them; they were run by breweries who wanted an outlet for their beers and therefore had no interest in driving pubs out of business, unlike pubcos who, if a pub goes bust, have a piece of property they can sell. Neither did they have to contend with 20% VAT, escalating beer tax and hostile anti-alcohol campaigners.

Some of the smoking ban opponents state that they don't go to pubs any more since the ban, which means - logically - they don't chat to licensees as I do (as opposed to ferreting around on the internet to produce dubious evidence to support increasingly peevish arguments). The view I tend to come across is that, yes the smoking ban is a factor, but by no means the only one and not even the main one.

That's the balanced view. I'm lucky in that I have a fairly wide circle of friends, but I can't think of a single smoker who has stopped going to the pub because of the ban; on the other hand, some friends have said they are finding the prices a problem nowadays.

I have no personal axe to grind: I'm a non-smoker, but not anti-smoking. As far as I'm concerned, people can smoke all they like, but that doesn't mean anywhere they like. I'm a drinker, but in many town and city centres, drinking in public will get you a fine, but I don't go around complaining that I can't indulge in a perfectly legal activity wherever I want to. I accept that it's restricted, even though drinking in the open air on a nice day is a very pleasant thing to do. My last employers banned drinking while working decades before they banned smoking.

The only thing that annoys me about some of the anti-ban brigade is that they ignore economic realities and prefer to blame the rate of pub closures on one factor alone. Simplistic arguments are always irritating and don't reflect well on those who promote them.


  1. Good article. Totally in agreement with you...

  2. You're tilting at a straw man here. Can you point to any writer or blogger seriously claiming that the smoking ban has been the sole cause of pub closures over the past four years? On the other hand, it cannot be denied that it has been a very significant cause.

  3. You've overreacted here, CM, as I actually wrote, "there are those who proclaim that the main reason why pubs are closing is still the smoking ban".

    "Main", you'll note, not "sole". You said "it's a very significant cause", which is another way of saying it's the main reason. So I'd point to you, among others.

    I've never said smoking isn't a factor, but on your own blog you've written, "Counting the success of the smoking ban" with the total number of pubs closed since it was introduced, as though one cause explained every single closure. That's the kind of simplistic argument I was referring to.

  4. Ah, but you also said "The only thing that annoys me about some of the anti-ban brigade is that they ignore economic realities and prefer to blame the rate of pub closures on one factor alone."

  5. That's called a summary, CM, in which you repeat the salient points, secure in the knowledge that most people will have read the whole text with its concomitant provisos and qualifications.

  6. Good piece, Nev. What you have to remember about the anti-ban brigade is that they are a small, but vociferous lot. You see the same faces crop up time and time again. The smoking ban is merely a cause célèbre for most of them to bang on about their right-wing political beliefs. How the government shouldn't interfere and how the so-called free market will sort everything out. That kind of thing. With the honourable exception of the PC, I'm not sure that many of them even know anything about pubs.


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