Summerhill, Sept. 8 (Reuters): Joe Murray takes a long hard drag on his cigarette after draining a glass of stout and mourns the imminent passing of his favourite pastime.
“To some people smoking works as well as medication,” he says from a bar stool shrouded in a haze of tobacco smoke.
Ireland is set to become the first European Union nation to stamp out smoking in pubs and restaurants from next year, hot on the heels of a controversial new law banning smoking in public places in Greece.
The Irish ban — announced early this year and due to be rubberstamped by the health ministry in coming weeks — has enraged both publicans and drinkers in a nation boasting one of the highest proportions of pub regulars in the world and where a cigarette and a pint are a way of life.
Rumbles of dissent have even been heard from the corridors of power where the country’s chain-smoking environment minister, Martin Cullen, has broken ranks with his cabinet colleagues.
“I have a healthy traditional dislike of over-regulation and being told what to do all the time, particularly now when it becomes part of invading your social life,” Cullen, who enjoys a 40-a-day habit, recently said.
Publicans fear the latest intrusion upon their trade at the behest of the “health fascist” brigade could drive some of them out of business.
They are already reeling from a raft of laws designed to curb excessive drinking and the violence that often accompanies it, which range from fines for serving inebriated customers to the end of the customary “happy hour”.
“I’ve been inhaling smoke for the last 30 years and I’ve never felt better in my life, thank God,” said village publican John Shaw.
He estimates that 50 per cent of his regular clientele in Summerhill, just outside Dublin, will desert him if they are forced to stub out their cigarettes before crossing the threshold of his pub. “The ban will have an awful effect on rural Ireland because the pub is a meeting place for neighbours and farmers who would perhaps otherwise not see each other,” he complained.
Calls for compromise such as introduction of designated no-smoking areas in pubs or simply improved ventilation systems have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Health minister Micheal Martin has refused to back down, insisting the advice from medical experts is clear-cut.
“Exposure to the hazard of tobacco smoke can best be controlled by banning smoking in all workplaces,” he insists. Smoking is blamed for 7,000 deaths a year in Ireland.
Both lobbies have seized upon the experience of New York, where a smoking ban in bars and restaurants is in place, to bolster their respective arguments.
While publicans and hotels have warned that 65,000 jobs — a third of the hospitality sector workforce — could be lost if Ireland follows suit, the pro-ban lobby dismisses this as scaremongering. “When we joined the (European) Common Market, the Irish pub was fit to be exported all over Europe but now they’re trying to change it,” rued Shaw, whose pub has been in his family for generations.
The tourism sector fears it will be particularly hit if holidaymakers are put off travelling to Ireland and head for France and Italy where a more smoker-friendly ambience prevails.