Gone in a puff of smoke
Five years ago this week, Ireland became the first country in Europe to introduce a total ban on smoking in the workplace. Despite predictions of widespread resistance, it was quickly embraced by the Irish public
IN the St Patrick’s Day episode of The Simpsons, when Homer and Grandpa accidentally bought a pub on their visit to Ireland, they noticed that the Irish had become ‘hard-working and sober’. In an attempt to get business into the struggling pub, they turned it into a ‘smokeasy’ where patrons could smoke in defiance of the smoking ban. Despite being a roaring success, the pub was raided, closed down, and the Simpsons deported.
While The Simpsons’ creators might have thought the idea of a ‘smokeasy’ would go down well with the Irish public, the five years since the smoking ban’s introduction have shown that the Irish are happy to go to the pub and have a pint without a fag in the other hand.
The introduction of the smoking ban on March 29, 2004, made headline news throughout Europe and beyond, as Ireland became the first country to introduce a total ban on smoking in indoor public areas. The BBC radio station, Five Live, even broadcasted one of its afternoon shows live from Dublin City Centre Cafe to view the reaction to the smoking ban on its first day. It was seen as unworkable, especially in Ireland, where the critics claimed the Irish mindset of paying lip service to the rules would never take to it.
However, much to the amazement of many, including the legislators, the public embraced the law even though it caused inconvenience for many drinkers, who now have to go outside for a smoke. The transition was not without its challenges, however. Fine Gael Justice spokesman, John Deasy, was sacked when he lit up in the Dáil bar, and Galway City pub Fibber Magees gained notoriety when it chose to openly defy the ban. Its lone crusade was not taken up by other publicans though, and the owners soon brought back the ban after being fined and ordered to pay costs totalling €9,400.
The ban brought changes to the Irish pubs and the biggest change and surprise to come from it was the smoking area. Many pubs that erected specially-designated areas – which are connected to the pubs but do not break the ban rules – have seen them become as popular as the main part of the pub, especially during the summer months. They have become a refuge for smokers but are also frequented by non-smokers who see it as the ideal location to chat up members of the opposite sex.
While the ban was generally accepted by the public, the main opposition at the time was from the publicans who claimed it would be the death knell of the Irish pub industry. In Mayo there was great concern among publicans that the ban would drive drinkers away from the pubs.
In the edition of The Mayo News following the introduction of the ban, publicans spoke of how the ban would affect their business and one of the vocal critics of the move at the time was Swinford publican and current Cathaoirleach of Mayo County Council, Joe Mellett. Five years on, Cllr Mellet admits the ban was a good thing in terms of health but still believes it was another nail in the coffin of the rural pub, and has done nothing to cut the sale of cigarettes.
“It was a good idea from a health point of view, and cleaning the environment of the pub, but it continues to be another nail in the coffin for the bars. It was brought in to curb the use of tobacco products but I have noticed in my newsagents that the sale of cigarettes has gone up despite the price rise. In the smoking areas of the pubs there are as many non-smokers as smokers and that is said by many publicans. Smokers are like the hardline Fianna Fáilers, who vote for them no matter what. Yes, the smoking ban was a good idea but it has had a minimum effect,” he said.
Perhaps the truest measure of the success of the smoking ban, in terms of our acceptance, is that many Irish people now complain about smoke-filled pubs in other countries and find such an environment hard to stand. Our positivity towards the ban has not gone unnoticed in Europe either, where it has been felt that if the ‘crazy’ Irish can live with it, so can they. The first country to follow Ireland’s example was Norway and this was soon followed by the UK, France, Italy, Spain and many more.
For once, Ireland has led the way and Europe has happily followed.