One argument often advanced in favour of the smoking ban was that the licensed trade dragged its feet in providing non-smoking areas. Now, I tend to believe that this is disingenuous, as nothing the licensed trade could have done short of imposing a 100% “voluntary” ban would in practice have dissuaded the antismoking lobby from going for the jugular. But I don’t think it’s true anyway – in fact, even pre-ban, the provision of non-smoking areas was far greater than the trade is usually given credit for. I’m not saying it covered a majority of pubs, but in most areas of the country there were a substantial number of places where you could go, if you so wished, and have a drink in a smoke-free environment.
Clearly it isn’t possible to get into a time machine to prove this point, but, for a start, every single Wetherspoon’s pub had a non-smoking area, so there was one in the centre of pretty much every substantial town. Some had even prematurely gone wholly non-smoking, although they stopped that policy as soon as they realised that trade in those pubs had fallen off a cliff. All of M&B’s Vintage Inns chain, including the March Hare in Cheadle Hulme, only allowed smoking in a small area near the bar. The Phoenix in Hazel Grove had gone wholly non-smoking (although it had no cask beer either). The Davenport Arms in Woodford had, following a consultation with customers, confined smoking to the tap room, while the Griffin in Heaton Mersey, an archetypal down-to-earth boozer and certainly no upmarket dining pub, had a non-smoking room of long standing. I could go on, but you get the point.
In the early days of CAMRA, there were large areas of the country where real ale was very hard to find and people had to, and did, travel a long way to drink it. If they were prepared to do that, then it was a lot easier, if you were sufficiently bothered, to find somewhere in the mid-2000s where you could drink in a non-smoking environment. The thing was, though, very few people were that bothered.
This was not the case with eating out, as there were enough people who actively preferred to eat in a non-smoking environment that, by 2005, the vast majority of food-oriented pubs were at least 50% non-smoking. There was a clear economic demand here, and without any legislation the market had evolved to cater for it. But when it came to just going out for a drink, the vast majority of people were either smokers, part of mixed groups of smokers and non-smokers, or not really too concerned about a smoky environment. Not that a lot of pubs were particularly smoky anyway. The antismokers, if they really did want to vote with their feet, could still enjoy a varied drinking experience by sticking to the pubs with non-smoking areas, which may have been predominantly food-oriented but, as I suggested before, included a fair smattering of traditional pubs as well. Perhaps if they had been able to do more to demonstrate a demand for non-smoking areas for drinkers, we might have some genuine choice now.
But instead we ended up getting a “solution” imposed by non-pubgoers on the pub trade for which there was no genuine demand within the trade, as the lack of non-smoking provision purely for drinkers showed. And the legacy in terms of the swathes of closed and deserted pubs is only too obvious. If you don’t like a particular state of affairs, and know that the market isn’t going to deliver your preferred solution as there is insufficient demand for it, it is all too easy to go crying to Nanny to remove choice and get it banned.