One month on: smoking debate smoulders

A LOG fire crackles invitingly outside, casting shadows on the wall of Plato’s new beer garden. At the neatly arranged tables tobacco in barcustomers are chatting, laughing and smoking.

Beer in hand I head for the door, but I am halted at a sign over it that decrees “Smoking Area Only. Non-Smokers Will be Asked to Leave.”

Around the walls of this Nicosia bar are apologetic notices reminding customers of the law, and along an empty bar miniature placards state cheerfully “Seat occupied - just gone for a smoke”. That I can even see the bar from where I’m standing tells me that the ban has made a big impact.

Though I prefer the bar without the smoke, the sign over the door suggests not everyone agrees. As it happens, the owner has even started a petition against the ban.

As a non-smoker I have been mostly apathetic towards the new law until now. Nonetheless, I prefer less cramped bars, cleaner air and having to do less laundry; and I have been out a lot more since.

I say “until now” because on further investigation, the smoking issue is not simply about Personal Freedoms versus the Greater Good (at the best of times a tedious debate) but also matter of economics. Which side you come down depends on how you value health, wealth or the local pub.

In a series of interviews with pub-goers, bar owners and health experts, conflicting opinions have emerged. Firstly, just over a month after the ban took effect, all the bar and nightclub owners interviewed by the Sunday Mail claim that their custom and revenue were down on last year.

“I estimate we have around 40 per cent fewer customers compared to last year. For every 20 drinks we sold last year, we now sell 12. We have a rooftop bar but we close it in winter. Hopefully in the summer we will get more customers,” said one nightclub owner, who added that without the smoke to mask it, the smell of the club was driving customers away.

“A similar number of people are coming to my bar as before,” said another, who runs a popular venue in Nicosia, “but they are buying far fewer drinks”.

“When people can smoke inside they drink more. Now they are outside half of the time.”

Asked how much he was losing since the ban, he said: “At this rate, I will have lost tens of thousands of euros in revenue by the end of the year, if I am even in business then. I have already laid off five of my 30 staff.”

A third was blunter. “It’s a different kind of person that comes in now. Non-smokers drink less, much less fun,” he said. With a look of pure disdain, he added: “People are coming in asking for milkshakes and green tea.”

Fanos Leventis, Hotel and Bar Association president, represents hundreds of employers who claim to have lost income since the ban. “Everybody understands that there is something wrong with the ban, and it must be changed,” he said.

Leventis met with an MP last week – he was reluctant to say who - to discuss an amendment to the law to allow smoking concessions in the hospitality trade. These are necessary, he argues, because many venues simply do not have the infrastructure to set up outdoor smoking areas, and so this law is their death knell.

“We think some hotels should be allowed to have smoking floors, that certain venues can have smoking areas, or in small venues, that they can be designated as smoking or non-smoking,” he said.

Leventis says that at the political level, politicians are divided. “When they voted on this bill, nearly half of the MPs were out of the room. Had everyone been there to vote, the law might not have been passed… There is a will to try and reform this in all the parties. ”

Asked if he thinks they should follow the Greek model where establishments can apply for a smoking licence, he said: “Greece is not a good example. First and foremost we want to respect non-smokers. In Belgium they have managed it.” His hopes of repeal will no doubt be buoyed by the Croatian example. Their government revised their smoking ban following complaints by cafι owners.

In contrast to bar owners, many smokers appear to have accepted the law, while non-smokers are either indifferent or happy with it.

Stelios Sycallides, Cyprus Non Smokers League Secretary said: “We are very pleased with the law, and from all the studies, around 90 per cent of people over 15 were in favour of the law. All of the studies undertaken in Cyprus show this kind of attitude.”

Sycallides dismisses claims that hospitality revenue was down. “This law does not cost bar owners a lot of money. They claim they lost 40 per cent just ten days after the law, but tobacco companies are pushing them. In all other countries the law has increased custom. We must wait for three months and see.”

In the UK, the indoor smoking ban prompted a six per cent drop in cigarette sales, but bar owners doubt it will have the same effect here where cigarettes are so much cheaper.

“This harms bar owners without reducing smoking. If you want to stop people smoking, why not tax the cigarettes instead?” one bar owner asked. “That will make people think more and buy less. In the UK it is nearly eight euros a pack

Sycallides disagrees. “We are not interested in this. What we take care about is the health of the general public and all studies and health organisations say this ban is the best way of achieving this, in respect to heart disease and cancer.”

His claim would appear to be born out by research. One such study, by University College London (UCL) one year after the UK ban, suggests that it will in fact reduce smoking. In one year, an estimated 400,000 Brits quit, saving 40,000 lives in ten years. In Cyprus, a similar trend could see several thousand quitting, and save hundreds of lives of smokers.

In an informal survey of 10 Nicosians by the Sunday Mail, only one said that they stopped going out because of the ban, while one non-smoker said they went out more. The rest had not changed their habits, though most smokers and non-smokers said they preferred the cleaner air. Sadly, rumours of rampant “smirting” (flirting while smoking outside) were dismissed by most. “It’s a bit cold for that now, but maybe in the summer?”

A key question is how much the law has improved the health of non-smokers. Martha Marcoullis, of the Cyprus International Institute for the Environment and Public Health conducted studies into air quality in Cypriot venues before the ban. Her research shows even partial smoking restrictions create toxic environments.

“The EU places a strict limit of 15 micrograms per cubic metre of particulates from tobacco smoke.” As a guideline, there are about 30 µg/m3 of particulates in the air when sitting next to a smoker. “During our research we found clubs in Cyprus averaged 319µg/m3, and in one club it was over 1400µg/m3.” In other words, before the law, the average smoking venue had around twenty times the amount considered safe by the EU.

Marcoullis’ research also makes a strong case against segregated spaces. In one smoke-free hotel in Limassol, the restaurant still had elevated levels of particulates coming in from an outdoor smoking area.

While the debate over second hand smokes’ real effects could go on, the main reason why politicians may be reluctant to repeal the law is the financial cost of first hand smoke.

To put this in perspective, in 2006, the annual direct economic cost of healthcare treatment in and lost wages due to smoking was a staggering 130 million Cypus pounds (€221 million). In a population of 800,000 this is almost €290 euros per year for every Cypriot; more than a relaxation of the ban alone is likely to generate in cigarette sales.

It remains to be seen which the government values more; health, wealth or the smoky local.

Smoking by numbers

4000 - the number of chemicals in second hand smoke

15 µg/m3 - The EU’s airborne particulate limit

1400 µg/m3 - The highest recorded level of particulates before the ban

€221,000,000 - The Healthcare cost of smoking in Cyprus 2006

40 per cent - The estimated loss of revenue by Nicosian Clubs

21- The number of MPs who voted for the ban

25- The number of MPs absent during voting

3 - The number of MPs who voted against

Countries that wavered

Greece

After several failed attempts to bring in a blanket smoking ban, a compromise was brought in last July whereby premises smaller than 70 square metres are designated exclusively smoking or non-smoking. Those which allow smoking must have their operating licences revised, have adequate air-conditioning units installed and display a special sticker determining their status. Larger establishments must restrict smoking to a separate section of their premises, exceeding not more than 30 per cent of the surface area. Live music venues must separate smokers from non-smoking patrons with the use of a two-metre glass wall.

Belgium

After a general smoking ban, including all types of bars had been discussed, the smoking ban was watered down and applies only when food is served

Croatia

A blanket ban on all enclosed public areas including bars, restaurants and cafes was passed in May 2009. By September the ban was partially repealed. Proprietors with establishments that are up to 50 square meteres are now able to choose whether to allow smoking. Larger establishments have to include a designated and separately ventilated smoking area.

By Patrick Dewhurst, Cyprus-mail
February 7, 2010

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