It is hard to imagine any of the luminaries from the United Nations nipping into a Wetherspoon pub for a cheeky pint of York Guzzler, but the UK pub group yesterday showed itself a surprisingly kindred spirit with that most august of international bodies.
In the same week that the UN blamed the UK's celebrity cocaine culture for the increased popularity of the drug, the pub giant issued a similar indictment of the stars for their role in the spread of binge-drinking, and the antisocial behaviour that goes with it.
At the group's interim results, in which the company revealed a sharp drop in profits, its chairman Tim Martin said that "the poor behaviour by a number of celebrities" and the "huge press coverage" their antics generate have resulted in acceptance of such behaviour. That, he argued, was bad for business.
"Although it is often perceived that pubs benefit from these sorts of occasions, it is our experience that they are often bad for the pub trade, since they are difficult for pub staff to deal with and can be intimidating for the majority of customers," he said. "This sort of behaviour is not a new phenomenon, and is frequently replicated by the general public during birthday parties, stag and hen parties and so on."
Cynics might have interpreted Mr Martin's attack on the cult of celebrity as a smokescreen for some very disappointing figures. The company, which operates 688 pubs in the UK, told investors yesterday that pre-tax profits dropped by 13 per cent to £28.5m on turnover that stayed flat at £440.2m for the first six months of the financial year.
Mr Martin called on the Government to help, suggesting that it launch a public campaign to spread the message that "pubs and drinking are legitimate activities" and to impose harsher rules on bad behaviour.
The company has been hit hard by the smoking ban, which has led to fewer customers coming to the pubs to drink. Food sales, however, continued to grow, up 9 per cent, as more families and non-drinkers chose to go to its bars and pubs for their meals. Mr Martin said that bar sales would recover, though he was unsure when that would happen.
Wetherspoon shares traded down heavily on the news, losing 16.6 per cent to close at 260p on the day. Yesterday's trading meant that the company has now lost more than 60 per cent of its value in the past year amid worries about the effect of the smoking ban on the industry. The model that had helped put pub stocks into vogue in recent years – that of splitting them into separate property and operating companies – which analysts predicted would unlock huge value in these stocks, has now been largely discredited, dragging down the shares still further.
The company warned that the rest of the year would be difficult, with second-half sales "broadly similar" to the first half, which were down 2 per cent like-for-like. Additional "cost pressures", including the rising cost of food, meant that the group had a "slightly more cautious outlook for the second half of this financial year".