Thursday 29 June 2017

Myths and realities of the smoking ban - 10 years on

In July 2007, a smoking ban was introduced in all enclosed 'public' places - bars, restaurants, railway platforms and workplaces - in England. Three months later, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) issued a fact sheet titled 'As the Smoke Clears: Myths and Reality of Smokefree England'. Before the ban, ASH consistently dismissed evidence from Ireland and the US that smoke-free legislation damages the hospitality trade. In this document, they asserted that it was all a lie.

When the ASH fact sheet was released, the smoking ban had barely been in force for 100 days and pub chains and bingo operators had not yet announced their end-of-year accounts. Nor had the cold winter months arrived. There was, however, mounting anecdotal evidence of pubs and bingo halls suffering immediate hardship.

Looking back on it with ten years of hindsight, much of 'Myths and Reality' is genuinely laughable. It uses selective data to paint a rosy picture of life after the smoking ban and led the public to believe that reports of economic damage were propagated by vested interests within what they called 'pro smoking organisations' and the 'hospitality organisations' (it was never explained why the hospitality industry would want to lie about the ban if it was not being damaged by it).

ASH's document listed ten 'myths' about the smoking ban and then gave what ASH called the 'reality' to debunk them. With the tenth anniversary of the ban coming up on Saturday, it is worth comparing what they said at the time to what we now know happened.

'Myth': It will be bad for pubs

What ASH said in 2007: 'Pro smoking groups claimed that the smokefree legislation would be bad for business and we would lead to many pubs closing down. The evidence to date from notable pub groups is that the smoking ban has had 'little impact' upon their sales. Capital Pubs announced profits and that the 'smoking ban has had no material impact on business'. Greene King said like-for-like sales were up by 2% in managed houses and 1% in tenanted pubs. Punch Tavern shares rose by 2.3% and announced the smoking ban as having 'little impact upon sales'. Mitchells & Butler announced that the smoking ban has not affected UK sales with like-for-like sales increasing by 2.6 per cent. Furthermore a recent YouGov survey commissioned by ASH found that 20% of non-smokers reported that they visited pubs more often since the smoking ban.'

This was palpable nonsense at the time and it is truly risible today. ASH named four pub chains, all of which were putting on a brave face in the immediate wake of the smoking ban. Let's take each of them in turn:

When interviewed in November 2007, the Chief Executive of Capital Pubs expressed confidence about trade 'despite the smoking ban'. At that time, the company's share price was £1.60 but once winter kicked in and the smokers disappeared en masse, the share price fell by 33%. It was sold to Greene King in 2011.

Speaking of Greene King, stories such as 'Greene King sales rise allays smoking ban fears' and 'Greene King absorbs smoking ban' painted a rosy picture for the Suffolk brewery in the weeks following the ban. Greene King was one of the great recent success stories in the pub industry and it had more reason to be more optimistic than some of its rivals since 90% of its pubs were able to offer outdoor smoking areas. Like the other pub giants, the company expected a spate of pub closures elsewhere which would allow them to snap up some nice properties cheaply. Shareholders were less confident. After quadrupling in value between 2003 and February 2007, the company's share price peaked at over £10 before the smoking ban and then plummeted, dropping to a low of barely £3 in October 2008. It gradually rallied thereafter but has never reached its pre-ban peak and is still a third lower than it was in June 2007. It has been selling off pubs left, right and centre.

Things were even worse for Punch Taverns, whose share price peaked in June 2007. They reduced their financial projections by 2-3% due to poor trading in a 'soggy summer' and insisted that 'the trading lull was a 'one-off blip' that had nothing to do with the impact of the smoking ban.' It remained buoyant about sales in the longer term - hence the quote ASH used above. Two months later, the rain was gone but trade was still flat and for the first time the company expressed concerns about the smoking ban. 'Cautious is the word we are using for how we think 2008 will turn out,' said Giles Thorley, the managing director, 'We cannot say more than that because of the uncertainties surrounding the slowdown in consumer confidence and the long-term effects of the smoking ban.'

By January, things were looking more desperate. With its share price in free-fall, Punch Taverns announced that the first six months of the ban had seen sales slip for the first time in years. In the six months since ASH had cited the 2.3% rise in Punch's share price, the company's stock had nearly halved, from £11.00 to £6.00. A company spokesman finally had to admit the obvious: 'The smoking ban has impacted trading,' he said.

By 2011, Punch was a trainwreck and the truth could be told...

'The dynamics in the market changed and that really started with the smoking ban,' says Roger Whiteside, managing director of Punch's tenanted pubs division. 'There's been a long-term decline for decades in volume sales of beer. What used to be copeable with – a 2% or 3% drop a year – became 7% or 8%.'

Shares in Punch are currently available for £1.79.

Finally, there is Mitchells & Butler, owners of the Harvester chain. Once again, its share price tells the story, peaking in June 2007 before losing 75 per cent of its value in the first year of the ban. Today, it is still 75 per cent down on its pre-ban value.

And what of the pub chains ASH didn't mention?

The country's second-biggest pub company, Enterprise Inns, sold all its pubs in Scotland within months of the smoking ban coming into effect north of the border. In November 2007, it announced its first drop in profits for five years and its CEO warned that the smoking ban would lead to further pub closures. You can probably guess the rest. Enterprise's share price peaked in the weeks before the smoking ban came into effect in England and halved in value over the next twelve months (from £7.80 to £3.90). Its shares bottomed out at 36p in 2009 and can be bought for £1.30 today.

Regent Inns issued a profit warning in December 2007 and announced that trading had deteriorated as winter set in. Its shares immediately fell by 34 per cent and by the end of 2009 was in administration.

Nothing dramatic happened to the British economy in July 2007 - the banking crisis and recession did not happen until the following year - and yet it was in this month that the rot set in for all the pub companies. Around one in five pubs have closed since the smoking ban came into effect, and nearly half of all nightclubs have shut down. (NB. For reference, the FTSE 100 is currently 9% higher than it was in June 2007.)

This trend was already obvious within months of the ban coming into force. The headlines in the financial pages of the newspapers told their own story:

'Pubs giant slumps as smoke ban saps sales' - Evening Standard (November 2007)

'Pub beer flattened by smoking ban' - Guardian (January 2008)

'Smoking ban begins to bite into brewers' profits' - LDP Business (February 2008)

'Wetherspoon chokes on smoking ban' -  Herald (March 2008)

The financial analysts Goldman Sachs - hardly a 'pro smoking organisation'' - announced in 2008 that the smoking ban had reduced average pub profits by 10%. Scottish & Newcastle, the UK's largest brewery estimated a 8% fall in beer sales in January 2008 and beers sales in the UK fell to their lowest level since the Great Depression soon afterwards. But most devastating to the ASH version of events are the statistics for pub closures which accelerated dramatically in 2007. The trade journal the Morning Advertiser blamed this squarely on 'the savage impact of the smoking ban and spiralling costs'. The figures require little comment:

2005: 2 a week

2006: 4 a week

2007: 27 a week

2008: 39 a week

2009: 52 a week

This increase in pub closures is unprecedented in recent British history and although the smoking ban was not the sole cause, the evidence that it has been severely damaged by the smoke-free legislation is now indisputable.

Myth: It will be bad for bingo

What ASH said then: 'In the lead up to the smoking ban, pro smoking groups argued that the smokefree legislation was going to be particularly detrimental for both the profitability and long term outcomes of Bingo, with smokers more likely to stay home and use online gaming sites.

Reality: Gaming group Rank, which has 86 clubs in England said it was encouraged by performance at its Mecca bingo, with company shares up by 8.75%.'

Of all the hostages to fortunes ASH left in their 'fact sheet', the claim that bingo would thrive under the smokefree legislation was the most vulnerable to reality. What ASH did not mention in their rebuttal of this 'myth' is that Rank were 'encouraged' because bingo revenues in England had fallen by a mere 4.4% since the ban despite revenues having risen 2.3% in the six months before it. It says much about the devastating effect of the smoking ban in Scotland that Rank declared themselves pleased with a 4.4% fall in revenue in England; they had seen a 15% fall in revenue in Scotland after the ban was introduced there in February 2016. Still, it was only August and things were about to get a good deal worse.

In October, Rank issued a profit warning and announced that its Mecca Bingo and Grosvenor Casinos businesses had 'experienced a significant deterioration in revenue in recent weeks'. This was just the beginning. In England and Wales, bingo revenues fell by 20% after the ban came into effect. Initial predictions that the smoking ban would cost the company £1 million were shown to be ridiculously optimistic. By spring 2008, Rank were losing £1m in revenue every fortnight from the gaming machines alone.

As for the 8.75% upturn in Rank's share price which ASH used as evidence that the smoking ban was not 'bad for bingo', it would have brought a hollow laugh from the company's accountants. It was a tiny blip in an unremitting downward cycle for the stock. Since trading at a high of £4.40 in the weeks before the Scottish smoking ban began, nearly 70% was wiped off the company's share price in the months that followed. In February 2006 the stock was trading at well over £3.00. Two years later their shares were valued at 50p.

Then there was Rank's main rival, Gala Bingo. If ASH were looking for a quote they could have come to Gala's chief executive Neil Goulden. In 2006 he was told by Scottish anti-smoking groups that the ban would reinvigorate his business but a year after it came into force he told the BBC:

'The effect of the smoking ban in Scotland's been a lot worse than we thought it was going to be. We've actually now lost 8% of our customer base who have stopped coming altogether. We could have 200 bingo clubs closing.'

By the end of the year, Gala's bingo revenues had fallen by 11% but the company promised not to close any bingo halls. Alas, there was no sign of a revival over Christmas and the New Year and the first English closures were announced a few weeks later.

Myth: There will be large scale non-compliance

What ASH said then: 'Critics argued that a total ban on smoking in public places would not be possible to police and there would be large scale non- compliance.

Reality: However two independent surveys tell a different story. The first by the Department of Health, released in August, found that 97% of businesses are complying with the new smoking legislation. Secondly a YouGov survey recently released by ASH, Asthma UK and the British Thoracic Society found similar results with 97% of pub goers saying they had not smoked in a pub or enclosed space since the ban came into force, while 86% of pub goers said that they had not seen anyone smoking in a pub. The evidence dismisses the arguments by critics surrounding large scale non-compliance.'

This is a bit of a straw man. The claim that 'there will be large scale non-compliance' was never made by 'pro-smoking organisations'. In fact, FOREST always maintained that widespread civil disobedience was unlikely. By fining landlords, rather than smokers, the law was cleverly designed to get publicans to police the ban themselves. For the most part, it worked.

The ASH fact-sheet only references an article from the Daily Telegraph which had the headline '100s of pubs to flout smoking ban' but which did not quote anyone from a 'pro smoking organisation' promising 'large scale non-compliance'.

Myth: There will be heavy handed enforcement with undercover officers and covert filming

What ASH said then: 'Pro smoking organisations and landlords reasoned that the smoking ban would result in heavy handed enforcement, covert filming and armies of undercover enforcement officers. Simon Clark, a FOREST spokesperson, argued that it will be like a 'sledgehammer cracking a nut' and the British Beer and Pub Association believed that enforcement would be too heavy handed.

Reality: What has happened in practice is that council officials have approached the situation as they said they would, in a reasonable manner applying a 'softly softly' approach with relatively few being issued. Further, Lambeth council have recently reported that they issued their first fine while Staffordshire have yet to issue a single fine, providing further evidence that these claims were unsubstantiated.'

There is an element of misrepresentation in ASH's comments here. Their opponents' argument about enforcement was more about disproportionate resources and unnecessary powers than about fear of thuggery and repression. Groups like FOREST acknowledged from the outset that the smoking ban would take little enforcing and that it was therefore excessive to devote £30 million and 1,200 officials to the task of policing it.

Besides, although 1,200 people may not quite constitute an 'army', it is a sizeable regiment and it is a lot of people to employ for the purpose of giving out the handful of tickets ASH describe above. The analogy of the sledgehammer and the nut does not seem entirely out of place.

As for 'undercover officers and covert filming', there is no question that those charged with policing the ban were given powers to go undercover and carry out secret filming. It is not as if they ever pretended otherwise. ASH correctly noted that 'council officials have approached the situation as they said they would, in a reasonable manner applying a 'softly softly' approach with relatively few fines being issued.' This is precisely what the man in charge of training the enforcement officers told the BBC (ASH used the BBC's report as a reference for this section of their document) but ASH did not report his next sentence which was:

'But there will be some occasions where action has to be taken and I am sure the compliance officers will not shy away from that. These officers do not have to identify themselves when they go into premises and they can even film and photograph people to gather evidence.'

That is clearly 'covert filming', and the 'softly softly approach' was always going to be a temporary tactic. Liverpool City Council official Andy Hull made this explicit in the same news report:

'We want to make our presence felt from the start,' he said, 'and while we will probably just issue warnings on the first day, we won't be afraid of making an example of people or businesses if they try to make a stand.'

As these quotes illustrate, it was not the 'pro smoking organisations' who were warning of 'heavy-handed' enforcement and 'covert filming'. It was the very people charged with policing the ban. They were given £30 million and 1,200 officials who were given permission to secretly film in pubs and elsewhere.

One of the people who 'tried to make a stand' was Nick Hogan who was ordered to pay £10,000 for breaching the law and was ultimately imprisoned. Another was Tony Blows who was ordered to pay £12,000. Hamish Howett had his pub licence revoked. Hundreds of taxi drivers have been fined for smoking in their own vehicles. One cabbie was fined £200 for merely failing to display a No Smoking sign. It all sounds a bit heavy-handed and disproportionate to me.

Myth: Working men's clubs and shisha bars will close

What ASH said then: 'Claims and protests that the smoking ban would result in mass closures of shisha bars and working men's clubs, threatening the livelihood of the owners were unfounded. Working men's clubs feared that the smoking ban would see one in five of its clubs closing down following the smoking ban whilst shisha bars argued that they would be unable to operate if smoking was banned in enclosed places.

Reality: There have yet to be any reported closures as a result of the ban.'

If it was not clear in October 2007, it is certainly clear now that there is nothing mythical about the working men's clubs that have shut their doors since the smoking ban came into force. Within months of the ban coming into force, working men's clubs were closing at three times the rate they were before the ban and their management have regularly identified the smoking ban as a major factor in the collapse of their businesses. Although I have been unable to get any reliable figures, the original prediction of one in five WMCs closing does not seem far-fetched. After all, one in five pubs have closed.

There is less evidence of shisha bars closing but this is likely due to widespread noncompliance. A great many shisha bars have been fined for breaching the smoking ban (eg. here and here).

Myth: People won't really quit

What ASH said then: 'The survey by ASH, Asthma UK and the British Thoracic Society found that 12% of smokers have attempted to quit since the 1st July. Primary Care Trusts in Lancashire, Brighton and Hove, and Barking and Dagenham have all reported a 100% increase in people using stop smoking services.'

Before the ban came into force, ASH and the other anti-smoking groups insisted that the legislation was designed to protect the health of nonsmokers, but once it was in place they felt able to admit to its true purpose: coercing smokers into quitting.

Perhaps surprisingly, the ban was not accompanied by a fall in the smoking rate. On the contrary, the long-term decline in smoking prevalence came to an end in 2007 and did not resume until 2013 when e-cigarettes became popular.

Myth: Smoking is a victimless crime/ Claims about the health impact are flawed

What ASH said then: 'Pro smoking groups continue to dispute credible medical evidence regarding the dangers of secondhand smoke and the health consequences of smoking. 

Reality: Numerous international reports from bodies such as the WHO, IARC and the UK's Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health found that exposure to secondhand smoke was responsible for an increase in heart disease, lung cancer and reduced lung function.
Recently released research from Scotland shows that admissions to hospital for heart attacks have declined by 17 per cent since the introduction of the smoking ban in public places.

Independent tests and research have also been carried out on bar staff. A BBC investigation tested bar staff prior to the ban and found they had cotinine levels which were the equivalent of smoking 300 cigarettes a year. A study in Leicestershire of carbon monoxide levels in non-smoking bar staff found that prior to the ban they had readings between 10 -15 molecules per million air particles, the equivalent to 3 to 5 cigarettes a day. After the ban they had between 0-1 molecules per million air particles, which is the equivalent to that of a non smoker. A study by The Tobacco Control Collaborating Centre in Warwick visited 59 pubs, cafes and bingo halls and found staff exposure to harmful secondhand smoke has fallen by 95 per cent since the introduction of smokefree legislation.'

I'm not sure if 'pro smoking groups' disputed the health consequences of smoking, but they were right to dispute the claims made about passive smoking. I have discussed secondhand smoke epidemiology many times on this blog and in my book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist so I won't go into it again here. I have also discussed the junk study from Scotland that ASH refer to (see here and here, for example). Suffice to say, I don't consider it to be 'credible medical evidence'.

Regarding the claim about shisha being the equivalent to 300 cigarettes, it is also junk science that has been debunked by this expert.

The rest of ASH's rebuttal merely explains that people breathed less secondhand smoke after the ban than they did before, which is obvious. The question is whether they were any healthier. Despite a slew of dodgy claims, such as the recent nonsense in the Guardian, I have seen nothing to indicate any measurable health benefit. 

Myth: House fires will increase as people will stay at home to smoke

What ASH said then: 'Preceding the smoking ban, claims were made that the legislation was going to cause people to stay at home and smoke instead of going out to a pub or club and this would result in a greater number of house fires.

Reality: There have not been any reports to suggest that smoking related fires have increased. Further evidence that like-for-like sales in pubs have not been affected suggests that smokers have continued to visit pubs. Source of the claim: Direct line about_us/news_180407.htm'

This is another straw man argument. I can find no record of any opponent of the ban making such a claim and nor, it seems, could ASH since they resort to citing a press release from the insurance company Direct Line as the sole reference.

However, it almost goes without saying that, contrary to ASH's assertion, there has been a big rise in people drinking at home since the ban came into effect, thereby leading to a fall in pub sales (see above).

Myth: There will be an increase in exposure of secondhand smoke in the home, affecting children

What ASH said then: 'Pro smoking groups argued that we would see an increasing number of people buying alcohol from supermarkets and off licences and drinking and smoking at home instead of pubs, which would result in exposing children to greater levels of secondhand smoke.

Reality: The YouGov survey by ASH, Asthma UK and The British Thoracic Society asked those who were exposed to smoke before and after the smoking legislation about their levels of exposure to secondhand smoke at home. The results found that exposure had significantly decreased as the law encouraged people to make homes smokefree. Below is a chart of the results which shows that 41 per cent of respondents said exposure to secondhand smoke was 'a great deal less' than prior to the smoking ban.

There can't be many people in Britain today who deny that the last decade has seen an 'increasing number of people buying alcohol from supermarkets and off licences and drinking and smoking at home instead of pubs'. The shift from the on-trade to the off-trade has been well documented.

Whether this has led to more secondhand smoke 'exposure' in the home depends on the household. There is evidence that the smoking ban has denormalised indoor smoking in some homes, so this could be the one 'myth' about which ASH were largely correct.

Myth: The public do not want a smoking ban or any further tobacco control measures.

What ASH said then: 'Groups such as freedom2choose argue that the public are not only against the smokefree legislation but they also do not want further tobacco control measures.

Reality: However the survey commissioned by ASH, Asthma UK and the British Thoracic Society found that there was strong support for further tobacco control measures with 72 per cent supporting Reduced Ignition Propensity cigarettes (firesafer cigarettes), 63 per cent of people supporting picture warnings and 59 per cent supporting banning cigarette vending machines.'

There are two different issues at play here. The first is whether the public supported the smoking ban. The second is whether the public supports 'further measures'. In their rebuttal, ASH cite the results of a survey they commissioned which showed that the majority of people supported the banning of cigarette machines and the use of graphic warnings on cigarette packs. But these issues had nothing to do with the smoking ban and were not raised by 'the hospitality industry and pro smoking groups' at the time. This diversionary tactic takes the reader's mind off the real issue which is that the majority of the public did not want an outright ban on smoking in pubs.

And they still don't. Almost every survey conducted in England has shown that a clear majority of people would - if given the choice - prefer to see designated smoking sections rather than an outright ban (eg. the ComRes lifestyle survey).

I suspect that ASH only included this section because they wanted to get the ball rolling on their next campaigns.


When ASH published 'Myths and Reality' there was already abundant evidence that the 'myths' were true and ASH's 'reality' was a fantasy. Whether measured in terms of revenue, profit, share price or closures, the hospitality, pub and bingo industries had suffered as a direct result of the implementation of England's smoking ban and continued to do so for years. Much of this damage was evident as early as September 2007. For those with eyes to see, it was evident on July 1st.

Documents like 'Myths and Reality' were aimed at persuading policy-makers and the media that the smoking ban had been a success on every level. After securing the legislation in 2006, ASH's Deborah Arnott famously described her campaign as a 'confidence trick', adding that 'the appearance of confidence both creates confidence and demoralises the opposition'. The purpose of 'Myths and Reality' was to display further confidence while implying that vested interests were spreading false stories of economic damage caused by the ban.

This has long been the tactic of anti-smoking groups in the United States where journalists and news editors think twice before covering any story that portrays anti-smoking policies in a bad light. The myth of a prosperous and happy smoke-free England obscured the reality of closures, bankruptcies and unemployment. It was an effective strategy. Reports of pub, club and bingo hall closures were largely confined to the regional press and trade journals in the first months of the ban. The sevenfold increase in pub closures barely created a ripple in the mainstream press in the early days of the ban, although by 2009 the rate of closures could no longer be ignored.

ASH and its coalition of 'public health' groups lied throughout the campaign for the smoking ban and they lied immediately afterwards. I expect them to lie in the next few days as this draconian legislation reaches it tenth birthday. It was indeed a confidence trick and England was conned.

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