Ireland: Been there, done that

We recently marked the third anniversary of the introduction of the smoking ban in the Republic of Ireland and it warranted little more than a 12-paragraph story in most newspapers.

We got the usual run of statistics for 2006: 35 prosecutions, mostly pubs, with a few breaches by taxi drivers.

Overall compliance with the smoking ban, which extends across all public places including the workplace, is now at 95 per cent.

Our current lack of excitement about smoking ban stories is in stark contrast to the honeymoon months after it came into force, in March 2004. We seemed on permanent alert for daily reports on smokers flouting the law, possible court challenges and pub closures.

The reasons for such frenzied interest were strongly fuelled by the months of debate leading up to its introduction, when we had dire warning from publicans about the ruination of their trade, job losses, threats to go to the High Court and messages of defiance from smokers who insisted nobody would interfere with their cherished habit of lighting up over a pint.

True to form it was a publican in Galway city in the west of Ireland who provided us with the “sensational development” we were gasping for – he announced he was going to let customers smoke in his premises otherwise he would be put out of business.

Fibber Magee’s pub in the heart of the city was thronged the night he announced his revolt, despite a possible fine of 3,000 euros.

He made it to the top spot in the evening television news and reporters were dispatched to write colour pieces and talk to customers.

The rebellion soon moved south and publicans in Cork declared their solidarity and invited smokers back in. We were predicting the “collapse”

of the ban.

It provided us with days of frontpage stories – but then the state health authority, responsible for enforcement, stepped with High Court proceedings and it fizzled out unceremoniously.

It was not long after that we all swooped on a small court house, again in the west, for the first court prosecution of a pub in Connemara for allowing three customers to smoke on the premises.

The owner had been previously warned by health inspectors who found offending “butts on the floor”

on a previous visit.

One of the problems we faced was trying to stand up the anecdotal reports we were hearing about pubs, particularly in rural Ireland, where customers were supposedly smoking as normal every night.

Working on tip-offs we ended up putting in calls to these pubs only to be met with denials. In reality our investigation skills did not measure up to much in the way of nabbing offenders ourselves.

But there was no call to preach the poor mouth and plead for some relaxation of the law.

FICKLE

Statistics also emerged that 7,000 had given up smoking after the ban.

Although the doomsayers shouted loudest, the anti-smoking lobby and public health specialists were active in gathering their own positive findings – barmen were tested and their respiratory function had improved.

One year after its introduction the organisation representing publicans were again calling for a review and claiming business was suffering.

But our interest was waning. The problem was it was difficult to link the smoking ban to the supposed fall off – it had coincided with a rise in the price of drink and more stringent enforcement of drink-driving laws.

By the end of the first year, however, journalists were a little jaded with the stories. We’re fickle creatures and had moved on to some new controversy.

The message was that the ban would not be diluted in any way and most people were just delighted at the clean atmosphere in pubs.

Many pubs had built outside shelters with heaters during the winter. It was supposed to be leading to new romances as smokers struck up friendships in the cool night air.

We suspect that in some of those quieter little pubs in rural Ireland the bachelor farmers are still allowed licence on a Saturday night or Sunday after Mass.

Few would begrudge them – there is after all the cancer of social isolation, and who are we to judge?

Eilish O’Regan is health correspondent of the Irish Independent

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