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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 August, 2003, 22:33 GMT 23:33 UK
Ireland calls time on pub smoking
James Helm
BBC correspondent in Dublin

The traditional Irish pub: part of the country's social fabric, tourist attraction and successfully-exported phenomenon.

Well-known for its "craic", the Irish word for the magic ingredients of a sociable, fun time. In your mind's eye, a stereotypical bar might be filled with people downing pints of stout, a bit of music being played, and the whole scene shrouded in a haze of tobacco smoke.

Ireland's health minister plans to extend the smoking ban

One element of that mix may be about to change if Ireland's health minister has his way. From spring next year, Michael Martin is hoping to include pubs in a blanket ban on smoking in the workplace.

He is staunchly supported by the health lobby, such as cancer groups, and by the union which represents bar staff. They are concerned about the effects of passive smoking on its members who work long hours behind the bar.

Mr Martin, a young, campaigning member of Bertie Ahern's government, says the ban is about protecting and promoting health. He's in no mood to compromise, staking his political reputation on an outright ban as the only way forward.

With just over four months to go until the ban is due to be introduced, debate on the issue is hotting up. Opponents know they need to act fast.

A 'nanny state'?

A lobby group called the Irish Hospitality Industry Alliance has been formed to represent pub, hotel and guesthouse owners, who fear that a ban will hit custom.

The IHIA claims a total ban could cost up to 65,000 jobs across Ireland and devastate rural pubs especially.

Libertarians are grumbling about the intervention of the "nanny state" and there is also some dissent within Fianna Fail, Mr Martin's party.

Possible compromises include pubs having open-air areas for smokers - a nice idea on sunny August evenings, less practical in an Irish winter

The Environment Minister Martin Cullen, a smoker himself, broke ranks this week and called for more discussion before the ban is introduced.

He told me he did not want smokers to become "pariahs" in society, and spoke of possible compromises, such as pubs setting aside separate rooms where people can light up.


What Mr Cullen wants to avoid is a sight he says is familiar in New York, where smokers group together on streets outside bars and restaurants to get round the smoking ban there.

Other possible compromises include pubs having open-air areas for smokers - a nice idea on sunny August evenings, less practical in an Irish winter.

I spoke to customers in Keogh's, a well-loved, traditional pub right in the centre of Dublin. Its main bar was filled with tobacco smoke and almost all the customers I met were smokers.

Landlords fear the smoking ban will have a bad effect on custom
Landlords fear the ban will hit sales

The majority though, perhaps surprisingly, welcomed the ban. One man told me it was fair enough. Smoking, he said, was an unhealthy habit anyway.

A woman in her 30s said she would go outside if she wanted to smoke, and firmly believed that a lack of smoke in pubs would do nothing to diminish the "craic".

Two men at the bar, frequent visitors from London, were perturbed by the possible ban, which they thought was a bad idea that would drive people out of pubs.

Landlords are concerned about enforcing a ban: they ask what the reaction will be when, late on a boozy night, they have to intervene and ask a customer to put out his cigarette.

Mr Martin however is determined to bring in a measure which he believes will be for the good of Ireland's health and which may eventually save lives.

With big lobby groups flexing their muscles, there is much debating still to go before smokers are due to stub out their cigarettes.

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