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14 December 2010

January 2: A real ban at last - or just another smoke screen?



So smoking is finally going to be banned in Spanish bars and restaurants from January 2. Well, that’s what they say – but after threatening to see sense for years, I’m still not convinced the government won’t renage yet again on enforcing the new legislation.

The ban was supposed to come into force last January, then again in June. Now we are told it is really going to happen in a couple of weeks’ time. But don’t bet on it – and certainly don’t bank on the Spanish people observing it universally.

Spain’s smoking culture is so entrenched that I can see bar owners slipping the police a drink or two to turn a blind eye to the ciggy suckers. However, those expats who prefer to frequent British bars undoubtedly have clearer airwaves ahead – because most of us have wanted a ban for years.

My friends Jane and Graham Lilley spent last winter considering the likely effects if they were to ban smoking inside Ricardo’s, their bar/bistro at El Raso, near Guardamar. Like other bars in the area, they feared it would hit their business – and in the end decided to allow the air-polluters to have their way.

As a confirmed ashtray-basher, I believe a ban would have had the opposite effect, if not immediately then certainly once fervent non-smokers became aware that a fresh-air zone had finally surfaced in the local commercial centre.

Let’s face it, how many people – including cigarette addicts – actually ENJOY eating in a smoky environment?

OK, our Spanish amigos presumably do, but that’s because finding a Spaniard who doesn’t smoke is like finding an X-Factor judge who says something original.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the percentage of British adults who smoke dropped from 39% in 1980 to 21% in 2007, when the UK legislation against smoking in public places took effect.

I have always taken the never-ending stories of Spain’s sit-on-the-fence legislators enforcing a blanket smoking ban with a pinch of salt. The existing law is so woolly and ineffective that it might as well not be there – and I also find it difficult to believe that the tobacco-obsessed Spanish will actually observe the full ban. 

British fag addicts complain that UK anti-smoking laws are too stringent and I accept that they do have a case of sorts. My philosophy is that if consenting adults wish to impregnate each other’s lungs with a terminal disease in private, that’s their business. Just as long as the rest of us aren’t expected to participate in the suicide attacks on healthy living by inhaling the residue of their habit.

The problem at El Raso has been that the only way non-smokers could escape a coughing fit is to stay away from the bars. Until now, none of the dwindling number of hostelries on the urbanisation (I exclude exclusive restaurants like Stan and Ollies) has had a non-smoking area, even though they all serve food. This means that tobacco addicts have been free to blow their fumes into anyone and everyone’s dinner.

The government ban will make things a lot easier for people like Claire Tyson, who runs Rayz Bar at El Raso. She believes a voluntary no-smoking policy would have decimated her business – particularly in the off season.

‘‘The majority of my customers are smokers,’’ she says, ‘‘and they enjoyed the fact that they didn’t have to abide by the English laws where cigarettes are concerned.

‘‘If we’d banned smoking in the bar before now, they’d have had no problem going outside to smoke in the summer. But if they had to do it in the winter I think they would have just found somewhere else where smoking was allowed.’’

Only once has anyone ever asked me in a bar or restaurant if I had any objection to them smoking - and that was in England so long ago that I can’t even remember where it was. Anyway, I made it pretty clear I would throw my knife and fork out of the cot if the young lady concerned lit up, and immediately felt guilty because she had been courteous enough to ask.

It’s 30 years since I gave up my own 25-a-day habit after listening to an LP by a hypnotist which I took initially as a joke. Before turning in one night, I sat and listened to this guy’s soothing voice telling me to close my eyes and imagine I was sunbathing in an idyllic scenario on a tropical island beach. 

I was in paradise, he assured me, except for this ‘’horrible, stinking weed’’ in my hand.  ‘’Get it out of your life,’’ he ordered. ‘’Throw it as far as you can and tell yourself you’ll never touch it again as long as you live.’’

I went to bed laughing to myself, with no real intention of giving up. Yet when I got out of bed the next morning, I told myself, ‘‘I’m not going to smoke today’’. And from that moment, the thought of taking even a single drag on a ciggy has revolted me ever increasingly.

Even more bizarrely, a few weeks later my late mother-in-law, who had been a lifelong smoker, listened to the same LP one evening. She never smoked again until the day she died.

So where can we get hold of this record, I hear hordes of would-be ex-smokers asking. The answer is I don’t know. I always thought the hypnotist’s name was Edwin Starr, but since the only Edwin Starr on the internet appears to be the late soul singer, I guess that time has distorted my memory.

If anyone out there can enlighten me  on the hypnotist’s identity, and where they might still hear that LP, then please leave a comment. You could make an awful lot of would-be quitters very happy.

Anyway, back to El Raso where Jane and Graham’s decided against a voluntary ban – and subsequently lost me as a regular diner. I won’t eat in a room where people are smoking – or likely to light up. And fortunately there have always been plenty of options. 

John Latham and Ken Brewster, who run the classy, Hollywood-themed  Oscars café bar in Ciudad Quesada, certainly have no regrets after going smoke-free when they took over the old Casi Casi premises a couple of  years ago.

‘’We did lose a few people who used to come in just for a drink and a smoke,’’ they told me.
‘’But that has been more than balanced by a much cleaner atmosphere both for our diners and ourselves. We also have lots of people coming in now who would not have dreamt of eating here when smoking was allowed.’’

It’s easy to see why. With only 20 inside covers for diners, the addition of a row of beer-swilling smokers at the bar could only have a negative effect on the food side of the business.

The compulsory ban, if it does actually come in, will solve a Catch 22 situation. Until now, the choice that hostelry bosses had to make was: Allow smoking and ostracise your non-smoking diners – or ban it and risk losing your regular drinkers?

Hopefully, that decision has now been taken out of everyone’s hands. Along with the nicotine stains.

TOBACCO NOTE. Isn’t it remarkable that the people who smoke the most often seem to be those who look as if they can least afford it? But let’s not go there just now - I’ve kicked smokers in the butt enough for now.
THREE CHEERS FOR NO SMOKING: At Oscars with bosses John Latham (left) and Ken Brewster

Jane and Graham Lilley were torn over bringing in a smoking ban