Monday, 1 August 2011

Drip, drip, drip...

Pubs are still closing in large numbers, and on-trade beer sales are dropping steadily, if not quite catastrophically. But some may question whether this continued decline can be blamed to any extent on the smoking ban, which after all came into effect a full four years ago.

Well, I’ve never claimed that the smoking ban is the sole cause of the decline of pubs over the past four years, but it’s certainly been a major cause. And I would say it’s still happening even now. This is due to what could be described as “the slow erosion of sociability”. You may wonder how a small, steady drip, drip, drip of water can do anything to a rock, but over time it can completely wear it away. One Tuesday night, Ken decides not to go the pub, because last week standing outside in the cold really made his joints play up. Phil notices this, and mentions it to Jenny, who ends up giving it a miss the next week. And so it goes on.

It wasn’t the case that a lot of smokers made a swift decision after the ban that pubs were no longer for them, although some undoubtedly did. Others might have made an effort to stay inside and just pop out occasionally, but after a while have found that didn’t suit. They may have given up after one harsh winter, or stuck it out but been finally deterred by a second one, or even a third one. And non-smoking friends and acquaintances may have continued going, but suddenly found it less appealing when some of the folks they used to chat with were no longer there.

Plus, with many people, it’s not a case of stopping visiting entirely, but of going less often and spending less when they do go. It is very noticeable that the trade of pubs had dropped much less at the traditional weekend busy times than at what were always quieter periods. Many pubs used to have a baseload trade of lunchtime regulars, retired or unemployed or on invalidity, including in my experience a fair proportion of smokers. That kind of trade seems now to have largely disappeared. Plenty of pubs no longer open at lunchtimes during the week, and where they do they are often embarrassingly quiet. And what are all those people doing? Probably sitting at home with a few cans and an ashtray watching daytime TV on their own.

Changes in people’s social habits happen very gradually and often creep up on them. They may suddenly realise “I used to go to the Dog & Duck at least twice a month, but I’ve not been for a year now.”

Obviously the effect has somewhat flattened out now, but it’s not yet run its course. And, as has often been remarked upon, the much-heralded influx of non-smoking drinkers to pubs totally failed to materialise.

There are other factors at work, too. First is the fact that new entrants to the potential pubgoing population may well take a different view from their elders. If you’re used to going to pubs, you may be prepared to put up with popping outside for a fag, but if you’ve never got into the pubgoing habit you may fail to see the point if you’re not allowed to smoke.

Then there is always the temptation of the “new format” or the “rebranding”. If you’re running a petrol station, there’s not a huge amount you can do to diversify if demand for your core product drops off. But, with a pub, there are always other things you can try to drum up more trade – more or different food, guest beers, quiz nights, karaoke. Sometimes these will produce a short-term boost, but all too often trade eventually falls back to its previous level. All you’re doing is temporarily redistributing the existing trade, not increasing the overall level. This makes the pub trade almost uniquely vulnerable to “the triumph of hope over experience”.

There’s also the state of the property market. For three years it’s been in the doldrums, so the opportunities to sell up for redevelopment are curtailed. Thus some pubs stagger on because that’s more economic in the short-term, but once things pick up their days will be numbered. I’m surprised, for example, that all of the six rather down-market wet-led pubs on Castle Street, Edgeley, Stockport, have survived thus far. I’d be even more surprised if they were still all there in five years’ time. (I think the unlamented Windsor Castle had closed some time before 2007) There are plenty of pubs still open and trading that in the long term have been made unviable by the smoking ban.

I would say it will be at least ten years before the effects of the ban have fully worked their way through the pub trade. By that time we may be down to less than 40,000.


  1. At least we will have more Wetherspoons. Look on the bright side, Mudge.

  2. I'd actually be interested to see if there's any sort of similar closure epidemics going on in any other European countries, or if it's just restricted to our shorelines.

  3. It's certainly happened in Ireland, perhaps even more so than in the UK. I don't think any other European countries have such complete smoking bans, or have had them so long, or enforce them so strictly.

  4. Curmudgeon: Belgium, perhaps (very recently)? Cyprus?

    Is there still no smoking ban at all in Gibraltar?

    Although you're right I think about the bans per se - the UK (and Crown Dependencies) and Ireland have had the worst of them.

  5. There definitely are non-smokers who have started going to pubs since the ban, I know a few of them personally. I obviously have no idea how many of them there are, but I suspect there's a lot of them.

    However, they probably go once a week at most, for a couple of pints at most, so while their trade is no doubt welcome, it's not going to make up for the smokers who have stopped going.

    They're also mostly going to either food pubs or real ale pubs, which are not in any case the pubs that are most hit by the smoking ban.

  6. The closures were noticed a year earlier in Scotland when they started their ban.

    What you haven't mentioned is the massive increase in the prices of drinks. You probably know detail about the specific responsibilities of Government and brewery/pubco increases but it's a bad joke when prices locally have increased by over 25% in only 1 year and Supermarket prices have hardly changed.

  7. Fair analysis of what is happening. I'm one of those who stopped going immediately. I think most people persevered. I would have done when younger, just to meet people. I've now got so used to sitting in front of the TV with a glass of wine, I can't imagine putting on a coat and walking to the pub. There will be plently now like me, who are very much isolated. I don't it's good for either our health or that of society in general. I'm not saying I'm going to shoot anybody, but I feel less inclined to be a good citizen. I've noticed recently a huge amount of cynicism regarding politicians and the nanny state. Before long it will begin to have measurable effects.

  8. The smokers who regularly pay top wack for a drink and then stand uncomplainingly outside are the real passive smokers. This behaviour is the result of buying into the SHS myth. I've more or less stopped going to pubs because I can't be bothered to socialise with sheep.

  9. A good attempt to argue that the smoking ban remains a significant cause of the continuing decline in pub-going four years after it came in. Much as I feel sympathy for Ken's rheumatism (although I can't see why it would make much difference to Phil and Jenny), that kind of hypothetical example really is clutching at straws. I'm really not convinced.

  10. RedNev: A good attempt to argue that the smoking ban remains a significant cause of the continuing decline in pub-going four years after it came in. Much as I feel sympathy for Ken's rheumatism (although I can't see why it would make much difference to Phil and Jenny), that kind of hypothetical example really is clutching at straws. I'm really not convinced.

    I think the point is that once a few real live wires either die off or stop going out in protest, then a few others stop going because it's less interesting, there's a drip-drip-drip effect.

    I can only speak for myself these days but I stuck it out for four years after the ban, on and off. Most pubs are solemn, deathly dull places post-ban. There are some that have managed to carry on doing very well but most of the pubs around here have had to diversify into food in order to survive.

    Add to the fact that there's a wider range of beers at the supermarket anyway and they're often anything from the equivalent of £1.13 (on special offers) upwards, most being around £1.80 or so a pint then you can see why people stay at home. I can't get a stout, a porter or a hoppy blonde ale on a regular basis at any local pub because there simply isn't the demand but at the supermarket I can have a Hawkshead Brodie's Prime, or a Black Sheep Riggwelter whenever I fancy one.

    Lots of people don't even sit in front of the TV drinking their ales - many chat online and even here instead.

    Add to all the other worries (potentially bad beer, dickhead customers, empty pubs) and it's small wonder why pubs aren't dying off faster.

    I love pubs and I love drinking them but increasingly it's not worth the hassle of going out simply to pay more for a depressing experience.

  11. Paul - thanks for taking the time to explain the point which I'd understood anyway. I rarely find going to pubs a depressing experience in the slightest, and I usually I go out between 4 and 7 times per week. Funnily enough, none of my smoking friends have stopped going to the pub since the ban.

    So how come you have such bad experiences in pubs? I'd speculate that perhaps it's you, rather than the pubs or the ban.

  12. If you'd understood the point, why imply that you hadn't? It's merely an illustration of the gradual process by which human relationships decay, and is by no means specific to the smoking ban.

    If you have a failing pub, the customers will drift away in ones and twos over a period of time, and the eventual closure may still come as a shock to those who are left.

  13. Curmudgeon: If you'd understood the point, why imply that you hadn't? It's merely an illustration of the gradual process by which human relationships decay, and is by no means specific to the smoking ban.

    Indeed - another explanation (out of many) could also be that younger people - and I am in that age-group - simply don't see the necessity for going out drinking like they used to in pubs or at the more expensive trendy café bars.

    If they can just get together at each other's houses with the XBox and the telly and a couple of cans each that come to, say, 70p a pint or similar why spend £3.10 per pint most nights in the pub if they stay roughly within their own group anyway? It doesn't make any sense to them and it doesn't make any sense to me.

    A lot of the local pubs are dead, some very so. There are one or two that do have a bit of atmosphere but they're in the town centre and I don't know the clientele, so...

    There are still lots of great pubs out there that serve fantastic beers and have good atmosphere but unfortunately they seem to be rarer.

  14. I'd like to further my previous comment-
    I'll always be a smoker BUT I don't (hardly ever) smoke for serious health reasons -I was told to get exercise and walking to the pub is just that! So I try to exercise as much as I can but usually much later than before with a shorter time lapse before my healthy return journey.
    Tonight as an example - set of late - hardly a local in there so my socialising was mainly with 'visitors' coupled with a minor bit of local banter. The best banter was outside but where were the locals?
    They don't have the money - There's so little work down here and they're screwed by the economy.
    The best fun is a BBQ where we enjoy what's left of our cheap foreign booze - go on for hours -get legless and talk about the old days. NO! not the war but simply 4 or 5 years ago when the pub was the focus of all village activity.
    We could afford it then and as smokers enjoyed the camaraderie despite being outside - my greatest pleasure now is being outside with smoking pals and enjoying their SHS. The real sadness for a non-smoking smoker is nobody smokes a pipe or cigar! That'd be bliss!!!!!!
    My experience is that smoke inside a pub would be sufficient to take away the cravings but I know Tobacco Control know best 'cos they said so.

  15. Can I just ask anybody here if they are a smoker who has stopped going to pubs so much since the ban, what is it that stops you going to pubs so much now? Is it the fact of not being able to sit down in the warm and dry and being able to smoker and drink simultaneously? If a pub has a dry, warm and comfortable smoking spot, does that not tempt you out ? I'm just wondering, because even before I started smoking again, I didn't mind going out with the smokers for ten minutes. As long as I'm not getting pissed on with the weather, I am often happy with the brief change of scenery. I still go to pubs just as much as before.

  16. Saga: It's partly what you say above (it's not relaxing having to leave your seat and go out in the cold), but also the feeling of not being welcome and if a couple like we are, you can't go together for fear of losing your table and drinks. I used to love going to pubs, I'd use just about any excuse as there was nothing better than relaxing with a pint and a cigar/cigarette. Since the ban we've stopped going though and it's very easy to get out of the habit. I don't miss pubs at all now and couldn't care less about the ban anymore because even if they lifted it I wouldn't be going back. I sometimes wonder if that was the plan all along, to cut down on people drinking.

  17. Saga of Nails, I stopped going to the pub immediately following the ban. Here are the reasons.

    1) The pub industry appeared to agree with the ban. They thought they could do without smokers. I thought they deserved the opportunity to find out.

    2)I often dropped into the pub after work, on my own, with my brief case. So not possible to go out for a cigarette, even if I had wanted to.

    3) the main reason is that I want to relax, drink, chat and smoke all at the same time. I wouldn't get any enjoyment from getting up and walkng outside several times an evening.

    I've now got a deep hatred of anybody who tries to justify smoking bans in private businesses, particularly private clubs. If you are reading this and fit that description, remember we all die eventually, you are making many people's lives miserable, and for what benefit to you I can't imagine. Die long and painful deaths. Wish I could be there to laugh.

  18. "If a pub has a dry, warm and comfortable smoking spot, does that not tempt you out ?"

    How often, in the British climate, does that apply? No matter how many patio heaters you have, it's not much fun in a howling gale blowing horizontal rain. But it is noticeable how the occasional day of warm dry weather does tempt customers out of the woodwork.

  19. "If you'd understood the point, why imply that you hadn't?"

    I thought it was obvious that I wasn't being literal; surely my sympathy for the hypothetical Ken's rheumatism provided a clue?

    Having read all the comments since my previous one, I'm still not convinced by your post, which I believe is stretching an argument to breaking point to fit one of the main themes of this blog.

    I wrote in my own blog on 26 July: "As these reductions [in beer sales] have happened this year, the smoking ban introduced four years ago cannot be held responsible, although I shouldn't be surprised if those who see the ban as the cause of all the pub industry's woes will still find a way of blaming it."

    And six days later, you do just that. A coincidence, no doubt.

  20. Not entirely a coincidence, no. But I think the principle still stands - if you change any externality of a particular type of business, it will take a long time for the effects to fully work themselves through the system.

  21. A somewhat similar example is when a lot of sub post offices, often combined with newsagents or corner shops, were shut. At least in the short term, most of those shops carried on in business, but over a period of a few years quite a few of them have now closed, as the loss of the post office business leached away customers.

    And even if you believe that the changes in customer behaviour caused by the smoking ban have now fully worked their way through the system (which I don't) then the arguments of "flogging a dead horse" and property market depression still hold water.

  22. I noticed that three months after the blanket smoking ban was intorduced many pubs were so deperate to get back the customers
    they lost they were selling Kronenbourg at £2 a pint. Had absolutley no effect. The pubs I can think of that survive better now did it by selling food, removing the round tables and laying out square tables restaurant style and putting their beer prices up. In other words they have become smokefree restaurants. I really hate seeing couples and groups of people
    eating in pubs that I used to drink in four years ago, I know it's not their fault, but I still resent them doing so, because I would go to those places and expect to see people that would have been going there for decades - they just go there to eat. I miss all the round tables and pool tables.

  23. I went on a mini pub crawl yesterday on a glorious sunny day on the coast.
    Five pubs visited all but one with a smoking area outside.
    The four with smoking areas were heaving with almost the entire pub sat outside (including staff) smoking.
    The one without had 5 customers.
    I use all these pubs in the winter as well and often I'm the only customer as none of the pubs have a decent sheltered area to protect you from the elements.
    Sadly in this one small seaside town 3 pubs have closed within the last year.
    Without question the smoking ban has directly destroyed employment but what cannot be calculated is the isolation felt by millions.

  24. In response to the question from Saga of Nails, I am definitely one who no longer goes as regularly and then don't spend as much time in them when I do.

    Myself and the Mrs. use to visit locals regularly pre ban, myself @ 5 times per week and the Mrs. about twice (with me, of course) We carried on trying it when the ban started. It, first, became an irritation and then an annoyance. Sat outside, we didn't feel the environment of the pub - a major attraction - then we didn't see people as often and when winter came, forget it. Having to get up and go outside was even worse. They're crap now with little environment and though we still, occasionally, visit in summer, sitting outside, the pubs have thoroughly changed and are of no interest.

  25. CM: so you're asserting it takes four years for certain smokers to realise they don't like drinking in smoke-free pubs? In my experience, smokers aren't that stupid ~ and every smoker I have been drinking with over years - decades in some cases - still goes to the pub. Funny that!

  26. It's all basic common sense. I/we did not enjoy the pub as much after July '07 and stopped going as often or staying as long. When winter came and prices rose as well, as they will at every budget, that was the end of it. It was no longer worth the effort for a crappy experience. The driving force for us was the ban. Without that we'd still be there.

    Pub closures rose sharply in July '07 showing that we have not been replaced. Even pro banners admit it. Even they know that the Tie, supermarkets etc. were there before the ban and any 'recession' didn't start until a year later. It's not rocket science and silly to deny it.

    Any argument a pro banner should have is justifying the resultant loss not deny it's happened like some petulant, playground, bully.

  27. You seem to be wilfully misunderstanding the point there, Nev. Human behaviour changes in slow and subtle ways, and what I am arguing (which seems to me to be no more than basic common sense) is that ANY external change imposed on businesses short of outright banning is likely to take a long time to work its way through the system.

    Let us say, for example, that the government had cut the drink-drive limit, as was proposed last year. Undoubtedly, over time, that would have closed a lot of pubs. But the effect would have happened gradually over several years, not in a matter of months, and it would have been prolonged by pubs trying other formats (specifically "we must sell more food") in an effort to drum up more business.

    And do smokers of your acquaintance go to pubs just as often, and spend as much time there, as they did before July 2007? And, your answer is "yes", they are very untypical.

  28. Smoker here, ex-pub-regular. I used to visit at least once a week, often more, and always for a good session. I have not been in a pub more than once a year since the ban and I have not stayed for more than two drinks.

    The derisory 'shelters' are legally obliged to provide less than 50% protection from the elements. Why? No reason, just spite.

    I live north of Aberdeen. We know it's summer when the snow turns to rain. Paying pub prices to smoke outside is not a relaxing evening. Being harangued by smokophobes on the few fine days when they want to sit outside as well is not pleasant.

    So we have made alternative arrangements. You can keep the pubs. We have our own places. Cheaper booze, indoor smoking, no staff, no membership, no public access, no problem.

    We're also setting up brewing facilities (I'm a microbiologist) so within a few months, you can do what you like to supermarket booze prices. We won't need those either.

    It's the only sensible solution. The pubs and clubs don't want us so we're developing our own versions.

    It's spreading. Soon you pub-people won't need to be troubled by our nicotine-contaminated cash at all.

    Isn't that nice of us?


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