London (CNSNews.com) - British restaurant and pub owners on Wednesday called for discussions with the British government amid fears that a nationwide ban on smoking will be imposed following similar restrictions in New York and Ireland.
The Charter Group, which represents 14 separate industry organizations, said a voluntary code put into place in 1999 has resulted in significant changes in British pubs and that new legislation is unnecessary.
The group, along with brewing companies and bar owners, worries that the smoke-filled pub, a centuries-old British institution, will be irreparably damaged by smoking restrictions.
New York City imposed a ban on smoking in public places four months ago, and Ireland, a country with a pub culture to rival Britain's, will put a similar law into place next year.
British restaurants and pubs embarked on a voluntary code of conduct regarding smoking in 1999.
Under the code, pubs are encouraged to post a sign outside their doors stating which of five smoking categories the bar falls into:
-- smoking allowed throughout the building;
- smoking not allowed;
-- separate areas for smokers and non-smokers;
-- smoking allowed throughout a pub fitted with industry-standard ventilation; and
-- smoking allowed only in designated, ventilated areas.
The industry agreed to get 50 percent of English and Welsh pubs and bars to comply with the code by the end of 2002. A sample of 3,000 pubs earlier this year found that 63 percent had posted signs outside the premises, although only 43 percent had both signs and a formal written policy.
In addition, the Charter Group promised that more than 35 percent of pubs displaying such policies would have separate smoking areas or ventilation. According to the survey, 53 percent of pubs met the condition.
Despite the figures, Charter Group officials say that the government has ignored their requests for dialogue and that a total smoking ban might be just around the corner.
"We have delivered a sensible and sociable compromise," said Charter Group Chairman Nick Bish.
"We feel deserted on this issue," Bish stated. "We have all put in a great deal of work and want to make further progress, but it is extremely hard for our business to plan without any certainty on the legislative position.
"The experience of New York and Dublin shows that...solutions are being found that we believe would be very bad for the industry," he said.
Bish said that pub and restaurant owners simply wanted to express their views to government officials and that the Charter Group would campaign in favor of keeping the current system.
"Voluntary is where it started, and voluntary is where we want it to go," he said, warning that legislation could result in "unintended consequences."
Pub owners fear that a smoking ban will drive customers away or that the government will require ventilation systems, an expense that may put family-run bars out of business.
"If the government were to ban it (smoking), we wouldn't have a living," said Clive Mansell, who along with his wife runs The Ship Inn, an award-winning pub in Hampshire, southern England.
Responding to customer requests, the couple added a designated non-smoking area in the pub several years ago and installed ventilation systems.
"We need to cater to both smokers and non-smokers because our livelihood depends on it," Mansell said. "Our policy is supported by our customers because it's clearly defined and simple."
Angus Peters of brewery and pub chain Scottish and Newcastle said that government silence on the smoking issue has actually hindered the establishment of well-ventilated pubs with separate smoking areas.
"They (pub managers) don't want to put in a system today only to be told in a few months that the government wants something else," he said.
Anti-smoking groups, including the British Medical Association (BMA) and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), have pushed for a ban on smoking in public places, citing studies that indicate second-hand smoke leads to higher rates of lung cancer and respiratory disease.
In a statement released to CNSNews.com, the U.K. Department of Health welcomed the Charter Group's "restatement of its commitment to expand the numbers of smoke-free public places in line with public demand."
But the department, citing the figures compiled by the Charter Group, chided the industry for failing to increase the number of smoke-free areas and non-smoking pubs.
"We are disappointed at the slow progress which has been made so far," a spokeswoman said. "Half of the pubs that were Charter compliant still allowed smoking throughout, and only a handful of premises were entirely smoke-free.
"We look forward to continuing to work with the industry to raise awareness and change behaviour toward much faster progress in the future," she said.
The department refused to comment further.
See Earlier Story:
Study Shows No Economic Harm From Anti-Smoking Law (July 29, 2003)
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