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Irish pubs are best known for their superb Guinness, outstanding music, and pervasive smoking. But, if Irish Minister of Health Michael Martin has his way, smoking will be gone by January 2004 from all Irish workplaces, including restaurants and pubs.
When he announced the legislation last spring, it made headlines throughout America and politicians from Maine to Florida declared, “If Ireland can do it, so can we”. As a hidden benefit of the new law, other European nations may emulate the Celtic anti-smoking tiger. But it’s not a done deal. Opposition is strong from pub owners who cite the supposed economic harm that the recent New York City smoking ban has had on its Irish bars.
Over the past few years, I have visited Ireland often, both north and south, exporting elements of the Massachusetts tobacco control successes to my ancestors’ turf. Tom Power, the head of Ireland’s office of tobacco control, understands that the basis of success is changing social norms through clean air policies. He is as politically savvy as any Irish American politician and used his skills to pass the ban. At a recent meeting in the Irish city of Dundalk, Tom asked me to find out if the claims about New York were true.
In June, a meeting in New York City on international tobacco education media campaigns provided that opportunity. It was held near the United Nations on 44th Street and 2nd Avenue. Walking around the hotel you’d think you were in Dublin. On every street corner there was an Irish pub, and on 50th Street and 2nd Avenue there were three. What a research opportunity! After dinner we put together a team of four expert researchers to study how the New York smoking ban affected the Irish bars. We also decided to study the brew.
I was joined by Simon Chapman, Editor of Tobacco Control, whose father had Irish blood, Scott Leischow of the National Cancer Institute, whose mother is a Rooney, a descendent from Cork, and Danny McGoldrick of Tobacco Free Kids, who has relatives from Donegal and holds dual US/Irish citizenship. To avoid biased responses, Simon posed as an Australian barworker from Sydney, a city considering a similar ban. We surveyed the Irish owners, workers or patrons of four public houses, querying them on the ban’s effect on business, work environment, and rowdiness.
Of the four visited, none had significant compliance issues except one patron lighting up in the last establishment visited. He took it outside after a few silent stares. There was no significant smoking outside, and certainly no sidewalk disturbances, although the number of smokers congregating outside appeared to increase within the hour as evidenced by our return trip past one of the places visited earlier. None reported any fights or the like, typically saying “This is Manhattan”. Some suggested that bars in the other boroughs probably were not complying.
Three of the four establishments stated that business was off (typically 20–30%) since the ban, but two of those three were quite good natured about the situation, saying essentially that “it is what it is; you just deal with it”. The fourth said business may have fallen off a bit immediately following the ban, but that he sensed it was already coming back. When asked about the potential for the ban in his homeland (Ireland), he replied that “it’s going to happen everywhere” so we might as well get used to it.
None of the bars was packed, but nor were they by any means empty, especially for a quiet Wednesday night, and our sample was taken relatively early in the evening (roughly 9–11 pm). The crowds appeared to grow as the night wore on. In at least one of the establishments, the four of us couldn’t get a spot at the bar, but there were tables available. Their responses seemed scripted, and I thought back to comments I heard in Dublin that the pub owners of New York and Dublin were working together to oppose the Irish ban. A 2002 California study found meals and alcohol tax payments rose after its bars went smoke-free in 1998 and that by 2002, 75% of bar owners and employees said they preferred to work in a smoke-free environment, compared to 47% in 1998. A recent Irish survey found nearly 70% of bar patrons supported the ban, including 40% of smokers. Of the 30% who oppose the ban, half were non-smokers. It also found that 13% of people said they would visit bars more often for a drink once the ban was in place and 12% said they would visit less often. More interestingly, 20% said they would visit smoke-free bars more often for a meal compared to 7% who said they would visit less often. The place in which the barkeeper said business was coming back poured the best Guinness. Perhaps that’s the key explanatory variable.
One bartender complained about everything from Mayor Bloomberg to anti-smoking zealots. The words he used to describe the Mayor would have shocked any Irish nun. I never met such a complainer in Ireland and concluded that he was really a New Yorker with a brogue. We found workers in all the pubs enjoying the smoke-free environment, no smelly clothes, and less risk of disease.
We concluded our research around 11 pm with a toast to Mayor Bloomberg and the Irish health minister, Michael Martin. To our Irish cousins we can report that the city ban is working well. Stick with it and keep making the excellent brew. After all, “Guinness is good for you”, as the advertising slogan used to say, but “Smoke-free Guinness is even better”. As is the case with any such investigation, a great deal more research is by all means called for. We can’t wait to do a follow up study in smoke-free Dublin next year. Slainte!