Several pub chains announced yesterday that they were considering banning smoking in many of their venues in a sign that the Government's desire for a nationwide smoking ban was gaining momentum.
The Greene King Pub Company, a division of the Suffolk-based brewery, plans to ban smoking in up to half of its 550 outlets at a rate of a per week. The company believes a blanket ban is "almost inevitable". Its announcement came as the Department of Health confirmed it was considering plans to phase in a smoking ban with the co- operation of pubs, clubs and restaurants in the next 10 years.
Under proposals discussed in the past month by the Secretary of State for Health, John Reid, and leisure industry leaders, venues would have to designate increasing amounts of floorspace as non-smoking areas. Initially only 25 per cent would be non-smoking, but this figure would increase gradually, leading to an outright ban over 10 years. This strategy would be similar to the system used to prohibit smoking in public places in Norway from the late 1980s.
A spokesman for the pub industry acknowledged that smoking areas would be in the minority in the near future. The industry favours a gradual ban to the alternative of giving additional powers over pubs to local authorities, a plan being considered by ministers.
Pub owners fear handing control to local councils would make the introduction of bans haphazard. One of the most outspoken critics of the approach is Tim Martin, chairman of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, who has spoken publicly in favour of a nationwide ban. Anti-smoking campaigners also oppose devolving powers to local councils.
Mark Hastings, a spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association, said: "We are moving with the Government towards the situation where pubs are largely non-smoking but with smoking areas. It's not initially about a ban but offering more choice which the Government is also in favour of. What you have to do is make changes that do not harm the industry. Norway has now moved to an outright ban but it has taken them at least 10 years to achieve that."
Mr Hastings said the industry was opposed to the manner in which the Irish government legislated to end smoking in Irish pubs overnight last March - which he says cost the pub trade 15 per cent in takings - and claimed government officials had voiced similar concerns in meetings on the issue.
Greene King outlined plans yesterday to further curb smoking in its venues, which it said should provide a boost in trade. The chain's 140 Hungry Horse family-orientated outlets, 50 dining pubs and 70 Old English Inns, which have accommodation attached, are likely to introduce the ban first.
Adam Collett, the pub chain's marketing director, said: "We believe in the rights of our customers to choose their own lifestyle. Equally we respect the right of customers who prefer to enjoy our hospitality in a smoke-free environment. We think the changes will grow pub trade because many people are put off by a smoky atmosphere in pubs. We would want all of our eating areas to be smoke-free over time." Deborah Arnott, director of the anti-smoking campaign group, Action on Smoking and Health, said: "It is very welcome news that the Government now accepts the need for a new law to end smoking in the work- place. We understand that the pub trade and other parts of the hospitality industries may need some time to make the necessary changes."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health confirmed that a gradual ban was under discussion but that no decision had yet been taken about what anti-smoking proposals to include in a White Paper to be published this autumn.
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