Wednesday 22 May 2019

No Smoking! Ireland makes history with cigarette ban

Despite anger from publicans and legal threats, Ireland became the first country to introduce a smoking ban in the workplace, writes Anita Guidera

A woman smokes a cigaratte outside a County Louth bar after Ireland's smoking ban came into force. Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville.
A woman smokes a cigaratte outside a County Louth bar after Ireland's smoking ban came into force. Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville.
Irish Minister for Health and Children, Micheal Martin, has breakfast in Bewleys Cafe, Dublin, Monday March 29, 2004, on the first day of a ban on smoking in the workplace. PA Photo: Haydn West

Anita Guidera

HISTORY was made in March 2004 when Ireland became the first country in the world to introduce comprehensive legislation banning smoking in workplaces.

Months beforehand, fuming publicans claimed the ban would sound the death knell for the Irish pub, and threatened legal challenge to the impending legislation being spearheaded by Health and Children Minister Micheal Martin.

In Cork, they called for the minister to be sacked for "being a zealot".

But on March 29, the ban went ahead, and overnight, ashtrays vanished from over 10,000 pubs, as well as clubs and restaurants. Those caught smoking faced a hefty €3,000 fine.

Exempt locations included garda station detention areas, St Patrick's Institution for young offenders, nursing homes, hospices and psychiatric hospitals.

Anti-smoking group ASH hailed it as the health initiative of the century while the Irish Cigarette Machine Operators' Association described it as "their darkest day".

Diehard smokers vowed they would never return to bars to drink.

Two days into the ban, Fine Gael was embarrassed when its justice spokesperson, John Deasy, flouted the law by smoking in the Dail bar. He was promptly sacked from the front bench.

Around the country there was an explosion in beer gardens, heated patios, pagodas and carports as bar owners became creative in their interpretation of smoking areas.

Pint-wielding smokers swaying on footpaths outside bars became a new reality.

Law-compliant shelters were not the only new marketing opportunity to emerge. Lids to cover abandoned drinks and protect drinkers from date-rape drugs became a craze.

It wasn't long before the smoking ban had replaced speed dating as a new way to find romance.

"Smirting" -- a combination of smoking and flirting, a phenomenon that first evolved in New York City -- swept the country as smokers struck up conversations with fellow smoking strangers in the new smoking areas.

Despite early scepticism, it soon became obvious that the ban had been a huge success.

Cigarette sales fell by 60pc in bars and it was reported that 7,000 people gave up smoking in the first 12 months after the ban came into effect.

But enraged vintners continued to decry it as unworkable.

Within months, pub owners reported a 25pc drop in sales with rural pubs being worst hit, and called for the ban to be eased.

In July, a defiant Galway pub threw down the gauntlet by inviting customers to rebel and light up. The owners of Fibber Magee's pub on Eyre Square were fined €6,500 plus €3,000 in costs for allowing smoking on the premises.

This sparked a mini rebellion with other publicans putting ashtrays back on tables in the vain hope the government would retreat but it was short-lived, ending with a spate of prosecutions.

The first legal challenge to the ban came from a Cork taxi driver citing an infringement of civil liberties.

The runaway success of smoke-free bars confounded naysayers and surprised many national and international commentators. Other countries followed suit.

Even the public health community, charged with the enforcement, was surprised at the ease with which the public took to it.

But something no one could have predicted occurred in bars and nightclubs.

As the air cleared of noxious tobacco fumes and punters were beginning to enjoy the absence of smoke from their clothing and hair after a night out, new smells were filling the air.

Beer-fuelled flatulence, body odour and the stench of stale beer, long masked by cigarette smoke, billowed unimpeded into the atmosphere.

Premises tried deodorant dispensers and scented oils to mask unwanted methane and body odour emanating from revellers. But had the ban achieved its desired outcome?

A recent study showed that an estimated 4,000 lives had been saved by its introduction and thousands of smokers successfully quit the habit.

'We were worried about mass disobedience'

Former health minister Micheal Martin admits he was nervous that people would flout the smoking ban

'My mother always told me never to use the word proud so I can't use that. It makes me feel good. There's no point saying it doesn't. Yes it was a stand-out event' On the eve of the smoking ban, Minister for Health and Children Micheal Martin was beginning to feel a little nervous.

For months, he and his team of experts had worked hard to ensure the legislation was robust enough to withstand legal challenge but they had no way of knowing how the public would react.

"I think we had a lot of worries like, 'what happens if there's mass disobedience'. There was some anxiety on the evening before for sure," he said.

Early on the morning of March 29, they received a tip-off that the Gerry Ryan Show had sent an undercover reporter to test the ban in an all-night pub in Dublin's docklands.

"The reporter put the box on the counter, took out a cigarette and matches and just as they were about to light it, the barman said, 'Sorry you can't do that today. This is the beginning of the smoking ban'.

"So word filtered back to us and we said, 'Yes, we're on our way. This thing will work."

He readily admitted it hadn't all been plain sailing.

"The tobacco industry itself was very strongly against it and had orchestrated a lot of opposition to it. Publicans at the time were very much opposed to it, although with the passage of time many of them say it was a very good thing and a very positive thing.

"Towards the end there was a big push to get a compromise, maybe part of the room or pub or restaurant to be dedicated as a smoking area, but of course that wouldn't have worked. Smoke drifts. It doesn't stay in a corner."

There were also political worries for the embattled minister.

"TDs would tell stories of their clinics being full of publicans in the weeks and months leading up to it. I remember one deputy telling me they were queueing out the door. He just had to keep saying, 'This man is not for turning'".

But he was heartened by the response from the public and bowled over by the international media attention.

"I didn't anticipate the world focus on it. We launched it in Bewley's on Grafton Street that morning and all day long we were doing interviews. There were Japanese and American TV crews. Embassies around the world said they never had so many queries coming in about Ireland."

So was it the former minister's proudest moment?

"My mother always told me never to use the word proud so I can't use that. It makes me feel good. There's no point saying it doesn't. Yes it was a stand-out event."

Irish Independent

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