No bar to business?


As publicans step up their fight against next year's ban on smoking, DrMuiris Houston hears from the Minister for Health and Michael Boland,two key anti-tobacco figures

If there is one legacy Micheál Martin wants as Minister for Health and Children, it is that he was the one who improved the nation's health by removing tobacco smoke from public places. His grasp of the bigger prize means he is not upset by the efforts of the Irish Hospitality Industry Alliance, a group of publicans, hoteliers and others, to derail his plan to ban smoking in the workplace from January. "It is a great debate," he says. "Anything that keeps the tobacco issue in the public eye has a positive influence on smokers, and I welcome it." When it comes to the alliance's claim that 65,000 jobs will be lost in the bar, hotel and catering industries, however, he dismisses the figure. "It's way over the top and is simply designed to frighten people."

Michael Boland, the chairman of the Office of Tobacco Control, refers to a recent analysis of the economic effects of smoke-free policies on the hospitality industry. "A review of 97 studies published in scientific journals shows that a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars either had no impact or else had a positive impact on both employment in the industry and on sales. So what the hospitality association are saying is simply not supported by the evidence. There appears to be no intention to accept scientific evidence on their part," he says, adding that it is a pity publicans believe they will lose out from the legislation. "I don't think there is any reason for them to worry, and I wonder who put these ideas into their heads and what motivation lies behind it."

Boland takes out a chart that shows a 19.5 per cent increase in the number of people employed in eating and drinking establishments in California between 1992 and 2000. "This compares with a 13.5 per cent increase for all employment throughout the state and includes 1995, when smoke-free restaurants were introduced, and 1998, when California initiated a smoke-free-bar policy."

The figures for business in restaurants and other food outlets in the most populous US state are equally convincing (see table below). Their taxable income rose steadily for the nine years of the survey, with no evidence of a blip after the introduction of smoke-free restaurants or bars. It is convincing evidence that seems to dismiss the two major planks of the alliance's argument.

It has chosen to make New York's recent smoking ban the battleground. Boland's response, delivered in a measured way, is to point out that it is too early to comment, as New York city implemented its ban only in March, with the state following suit last month.

What made Martin decide on a total ban on smoking in the workplace? The Minister says: "The Health & Safety Authority-Office of Tobacco report [on the health effects of environmental tobacco smoke, published in January] was the key to this. It is the work of a multidisciplinary team who carefully assessed the scientific evidence and who subsequently gave categoric advice both to myself and the Minister for the Environment that environmental tobacco smoke causes cancer."

He also credits Tom Mooney, an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Children, and others with consistently highlighting the impact of environmental tobacco smoke. "I also wish to say that the ban has the support of the social partners in terms of it being a workplace issue."

Martin says the Republic was to the fore in ensuring a united European front when the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was endorsed by member states on May 21st. The Irish Times understands that both the Minister and David Byrne, Ireland's EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, had to exert strong influence on Germany to get it to agree a common European position on tobacco.

Of 10 key measures outlined in the framework convention, Ireland has already implemented eight. It is also involved in international moves to implement two measures relating to reducing the supply of tobacco. "The Republic is recognised as one of the leading nations in support of the WHO framework convention," says Boland. "Within the EU, other states have looked to us for leadership, and some have been using our legislation as a template for their own moves against tobacco."

As president of Wonca, the World Organisation of Family Doctors, Boland has been involved in lobbying governments for legislation and price intervention as part of the drive against tobacco. "We have had regional conferences in Kuala Lumpur, Sri Lanka and China, and I have even sat in on a discussion of tobacco cessation in the unlikely venue of Havana, Cuba. Eastern European countries have made huge progress in tackling smoking, with the Poles especially active in anti-tobacco initiatives."

Under Boland's direction, Wonca has developed three anti-tobacco programmes for its member organisations: formulating brief intervention techniques for GPs to help patients give up smoking; developing the concept of the tobacco-aware medical practice, in which everyone from the receptionist to the cleaner is committed to smoking cessation; and a lobbying initiative, where the umbrella organisation helps national GP organisations lobby governments on issues as diverse as smuggling and the size of cigarette packs.

So how ready are we for January 1st? Martin and Boland are confident the health service is ready to respond. "GPs, practice nurses and the health promotion officers of health boards are more committed than ever to helping people quit," says Boland. The Minister says there will be a steady build-up to D-Day. "Guidelines and improved smoking-cessation programmes will be rolled out. There will be a joint Irish Cancer Society-Department of Health helpline available for those wishing to quit."

And what about the controversial issue of enforcement? The Ministerdoes not envisage gardaí "wading in" to pubs and restaurants. "There will be a period of grace but, equally, the campaign will build up over the coming months, so that those in the hospitality sector will be in no doubt as to where they stand."

  • Muiris Houston will report this week from the 12th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, in Helsinki