What next for smoke-free pubs?

Research shows that fewer people go to the pub on a regular basis and the upcoming ban on smoking in pubs and clubs is set to accelerate this trend. But it’s not all bad news for publicans

Parliament’s decision to outlaw smoking in England’s pubs and clubs from the summer of 2007 was welcomed by many last week, but according to the latest research from BMRB the new law may accelerate an existing decline in pub going.

Data from BMRB has already hinted that pub going is in decline and its latest findings suggest that as many as 880,000 fewer smokers in Britain may visit a pub once a week or more when the ban is enforced, based on experiences in Ireland.

Following the introduction of the smoking ban in Ireland, there was a year-on-year drop of 8% in the number of adults going to the pub for a drink once a week or more (declining from 1.39 million in 2004 to 1.28 million in 2005). A similar year-on-year percentage decline in Britain would result in almost 1 million fewer adults visiting the pub for a drink once a week or more.

As in Ireland, the number of British adults drinking in a pub once a week or more has been in decline, falling from 13.5 million in 2002 to 12.8 million in 2004. However, new smoking laws might accelerate this trend.

Agreement with the statement “smoking should be banned in public places” has grown with increasing pace in Britain. By the end of 2002, 26.3 million adults agreed (56%). By the next year it had risen to 26.9 million, and by the end of 2004 to 27.6 million. Today, 29.7 million (62% of the adult population) agree that smoking in public places should be banned, so the Government has much support.

Demographically, people supporting a ban tend to be slightly towards the top social grades/ 20% are more likely to be in the AB grades. In terms of attitudes, they tend to buy environmentally friendly products and are health conscious.

The public smoking ban in the Republic of Ireland has been in force for almost two years. By looking at how this has affected the habits of people there, we can speculate as to what kind of impact the law would be likely to have in this country. In Eire, there has been a slight decline since 2002 in the proportion of adults (18-plus) who drink in pubs once a week or more (from 1.44 million in 2002 to 1.39 million in 2004 – a drop of 3.5%).

Between 2004 and 2005, the number of smokers in Ireland who say they go to a pub for a drink once a week or more declined by 18% (from 581,000 to 475,000). This represents a far steeper year-on-year decline than the 8% decline among adults as a whole. A similar percentage decline in Britain would result in 880,000 fewer smokers visiting the pub once a week or more.

But it’s not all bad news. In Ireland, since the introduction of the ban on smoking in pubs there has been a noticeable increase in the numbers of adults who have been to a pub for a meal “in the past 12 months”. In 2002, 1.9 million adults had had a meal in a pub “in the past 12 months”. This remained fairly static until 2005, when 2.1 million adults had eaten a meal in a pub “in the last 12 months” – an increase from 62% of adults in 2002 to 66% now. In Britain, the proportion of adults who have eaten in a pub at all “in the last 12 months” has remained static in recent years at 75%, although this may increase, as it has in Ireland, from next year.

Interestingly, there has also been a slight decline in the number of non-smokers in Ireland going to the pub for a drink once a week or more since the ban was introduced. In 2004, 43% of non-smokers went to the pub, but in 2005 this was 39%. This may be partly due to non-smokers feeling that they can no longer visit a pub with family or friends who smoke.

Attitudinally, smokers have a propensity for hedonism, concentrating on having fun rather than being healthy. For instance, they are 58% more likely than the average adult to agree with the statement “the point of drinking is to get drunk” and 51% more likely to agree “cannabis should be legalised”. They are also likely to have a casual attitude towards their finances, being 39% more likely to agree with the statement “I tend to spend money without thinking”.

The exact repercussions of the new smoking law are of course impossible to foresee. However, having examined the effect the smoking ban has had on pub going in Ireland, there is every possibility that regular drinking in pubs across Britain – already in decline – may fall more sharply still, as drinkers who smoke are given another reason to drink at home instead. This might spell bad news for some publicans, but it also seems likely that pubs will see an increase in the numbers of people eating in them if the trend in Ireland is reflected here.

Ben Page

Will the smoking ban drive smokers out of pubs, to fester at home? The world will not stop. Remember that most people support the smoking ban. And the big leisure operators need fear little – the huge growth in non-smoking coffee bars, non-smoking eating out experiences of all kinds over the past two decades suggests that people will continue to want to spend their money “out” somewhere. One of the biggest and clearest trends in Britain today is the fact that as manufactured goods of all kinds fall in price, driven by the expansion of China and new technology, and we simultaneously become busier and more stressed out, our spending on leisure activities of all kinds has grown faster than all other types of expenditure. So pubs that offer a range of food, which think hard about who their target market is and what the competition are doing, will continue to thrive, even if they do smell different.

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