The Great Irish Smoke-Out

Not smoking can seriously damage your health.

Smoking and drinking: It’s a phrase of the doesn’t-rhyme-but-should variety—like peas and carrots, Samson and Delilah, horse and buggy—as 90 percent of all heavy drinkers smoke, and rates of alcoholism are 10 times higher among smokers than nonsmokers. And nowhere is—check that, was—the tradition of sipping a pint in a pub while engulfed in a blue-hued smoky haze as central to a country’s cultural identity as in Ireland. “If you want to understand Ireland, go into a pub,” suggests the Irish Pub Guide.

But in late March, the Siamese twins of smoking and drinking were ripped apart in Ireland with the implementation of a ban on workplace smoking—most notably encompassing pubs, clubs, and restaurants, and even private residences when the plumber or electrician visits.

Nearly two months later, the winds of change have blown away more than just cigarette smoke. Wizened old men who look like they grew up with a Guinness in one hand and a toitini in the other huddle forlornly in dark pub doorways for a furtive puff as their pints go flat at the bar. Pubs where smoke was previously a three-dimensional wallpaper now boast (almost) Everest-clear air, allowing the various aromas that the Marlboro Man and friends obscured—vomit, urine, yesterday’s lunch special, spilled Smithwick’s Irish Ale—to reek pungently in their full glory. And Ireland’s fabled craic—an Irish word, pronounced “crack,” that refers to the country’s unique brand of fun and good times—has changed for good, a victim of the importation of the “American obsession” of “placing excessive limits on smoking,” according to a London-based smokers’ lobby group.

The economic impact of the ban is noisily disputed, with proponents and opponents of smoking brandishing research that offers conflicting conclusions. A study cited in August 2003 by the Licensed Vintners Association, which represents Dublin pubs, suggested that revenues at the country’s 10,000 or so pubs would fall by 8 percent as a result of the ban, leading to an $83 million annual decline in the government’s tax take and the loss of 3,100 jobs—no small beer. Tadg O’Sullivan, head of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, another industry group, told me in an e-mail interview that it’s still “a little too early yet to give definitive figures on beer sales but they are clearly significantly down.”

O’Sullivan looks to New York’s ban on smoking—which was implemented almost exactly a year prior to Ireland’s—for insight on the prospects for Ireland’s pubs, dismissing reports (like this one) that the Big Apple’s bar and restaurant industry is thriving. “The one common thread [between New York and Ireland] is the distortion of facts and figures. … Officialdom has always obfuscated by including the dramatic rise in fast food outlets etc. with the pub trade to pretend that there has been an increase in employment and turnover in the pub and bar trade in New York. When you examine the bar trades particularly and specifically you will find a dramatic decline in business in New York which is being replicated in Ireland,” he says, gainsaying reports commissioned by local tobacco control authorities that suggest smoking bans don’t impact the hospitality industry.

On another front, while a totally unscientific straw poll of Dublin bartenders and bouncers suggests that levels of adherence to the ban are high, some smokers are fuming. A few days after the implementation of the ban, a member of Ireland’s parliament was demoted for lighting up in the members’ bar. Pub owners in Wales report an increase in the number of visiting Irish people eager to smoke while they drink. According to Britain’s Sunday Times, one Irish musician has resolved to smoke in a different bar each day for a year in protest, each time leaving behind a card that reads, “I smoked in your bar.”

And then there’s the question of enforcement. The 400 so-called “cancer cops” charged by the Tobacco Enforcement Agency with enforcing the ban (and fining repeat-offender pub owners $3,600) can’t be everywhere at once—particularly in the thousands of small, family-run rural bars where generations of friendship, community, and tradition will trump the latest edict from Dublin.  

Arguably, Irish officials concerned about public health should focus on the drinking, not the smoking, that takes place in pubs. According to beverage industry research company Canadean Ltd., the average Irish adult imbibes 146 liters (equivalent to 437 12-ounce cans) of beer per year, more than the citizens of any other country except the Czech Republic’s 160 liters (Americans drink a relatively measly 83 liters per year). In contrast, a quarter of Irish adults smoke, similar to rates in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world.

Of course, hot dogs will be banned from American ballparks before any Irish legislator will try to stanch the flow of beer. And the country’s pubs are making the best of a difficult situation, with the LVA launching a marketing campaign in late April under the tag line, “The atmosphere has got even better.” Noted one commentator in Ireland’s Sunday Independent, “Given the fact that the vintners opposed the smoking ban tooth and nail and are still lamenting the lost business, it seems a bit rich to then boast about the air quality in their establishments.”

Meanwhile, the impact of the smoking ban extends well beyond air quality. Litter—particularly the profusion of cigarette butts outside pubs—has been cited in the Irish press as a growing problem. Even during chilly early May evenings, outdoor bar tables are packed with smokers as stools indoors sit cold. Jockeying for space under tiny restaurant back stoops is evolving into a contact sport for restaurant staff: “If it’s pissing rain, or if more than one person is out here at once, you get soaked, and God knows what we’ll do when winter comes along,” Rachael Ball, a server at Dublin’s Fitzers Restaurant, told me while perched under a small stoop during a fag break. And increasing numbers of patrons are wandering off without paying their bill while ostensibly on a smoke break.

The camaraderie of banished smokers clustered outside of every pub adds a fresh dimension to Ireland’s craic. “The smoking area outside the pub is now the new meeting place for the sexes, and apparently the fertile space in which illicit affairs begin,” says the VFI’s O’Sullivan. “[Women view the smoking ban] as an opportunity to hone their flirting skills. … [M]ore sensitive men would be embarrassed by the not-so-subtle sexual innuendo during these cigarette breaks, while the women’s partners, completely unaware, sit at the bar,” wrote bouncer Stephen Spratt in the Irish Examiner. Of course, some interactions have less amiable overtones; following one weekend in early April, three of the six patients admitted to a Dublin hospital with broken jaws said they were injured as they stood outside enjoying a cigarette.

Thanks to Brian Kearney for his help.