My Round: Smoke alarm

Even without regulation, bars are already starting to do the unthinkable: ban smoking. But will it ruin the atmosphere?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

By the time you read this we may be another step closer to seeing the take-over of no-smoking bars in the UK. Last month, Jonathan Downey, proprietor of the hip, successful - and rather smoky - London haunt, the Player (8 Broadwick Street, London W1 ), offered his members the chance to turn their bar into a no-smoking zone. While at least one pub chain and several private establishments have followed the same course of action, the Player is anything but a family-friendly bar and the move is intended to make the bar all the more desirable for grown ups.

If he takes the plunge, he'll also be taking a gamble: many people regard tobacco and alcohol as inextricably linked; they think you can no more drink a Mojito without a cigarette in your hand than you can scuba-dive without oxygen tanks. And that includes many people behind Britain's pubs and bars. Despite health concerns prompting the industry to sign up to a charter committing to improving ventilation and expanding no-smoking areas five years ago, today fewer than 1 per cent of pubs are entirely smoking free.

Downey, though, doesn't even accept that passive smoking damages health. For him, it's simply a matter of choice. "At the moment there is no choice," he says. "If you want to drink in a smoke-free environment, you have to stay at home. If you want to go to a bar, you have to put up with other people's smoke."

He's right, of course. Even though my attitude towards drinking in bars has been falsely and romantically shaped by the films of the 1930s and 1940s. Can you imagine Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains without their cigarettes at Rick's Café in Casablanca? But in real life, their smoke becomes your smoke. You breathe it in. You wear it on your clothes all evening, and they have to be washed the next day. If you're going out to dinner afterwards, the ashtray smell follows you as you sip your wine.

More importantly, some people have no choice about whether to spend their evenings in a smoky bar. These people are the employees who work there, night after night. In California, where smoking in bars and restaurants was banned in 1998, it was aimed largely at protecting the health of workers. As in New York, where a ban was imposed last year, the impact is hotly debated. Opponents say that the fall-off in business has been severe. Others point to an increase in business, particularly in restaurants. In New York, according to a report in the Boston Globe, alcohol tax revenues increased slightly during the first four months of the ban over the same period in 2002.

A smoking ban is on the political agenda here now. There is support for it in sectors of the Government, trades unions, catering industry and general public - Liverpool council, clearly not prepared to wait and see if the Government takes action, last month announced plans to instigate a smoking ban in public spaces and hopes to made it a no-smoking city by 2008 for its year as European Capital of Culture. Needless to say, there is also opposition in all those realms. Downey is taking a big risk with the Player, as smokers might head for a place where Bloody Mary and B&H can still walk hand in hand. He might also gain new customers who love the alcohol but hate the smell of tobacco on their Paul Smith jackets.

This isn't Rick's Café. It is real life. Pop along to the Player before 11pm - the time at which it becomes a members-only joint - or your nearest no-smoking pub (if you can find one), to see for yourself what it is like to drink without smoking. Whether voluntary or involuntary.

Top Corks: Three nutty wines

Lustau East India Rich Oloroso Sherry Waitrose, 89 branches, £10.99 Sumptuously nutty and dried-fruit flavours. Beautiful partner to preprandial nibbles of almonds, ham or Manchego.

De Bortoli Big Rivers Durif 2003 Safeway, £4.99 Indecent amounts of coconut sweetness (from ageing in American oak) blend enticingly with rich, spicy fruit. Quaffing wine of distinction.

Pheasant Gully Gewürztraminer/Riesling Bin 492 Marks & Spencer, £4.99 This Australian quaffer is a perfect apéritif with salty nuts to cut through the squish of floral fruits. Mindless pleasure.

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