In years to come it will always be remembered as ‘smoking ban weather’. In the few days after the world’s media descended to report that Ireland — Ireland! — had outlawed workplace smoking, the late-March rain and wind stayed away and the sunny city sidewalks filled up with pint drinkers and cigarette smoke.
Because of course the media interest in the ban had little to do with smoke-free workplaces per se — most of them have had little legal smoking for a decade — but with pubs, where choking on smoke has long been inextricably linked with choking down Guinness. And no, the atmosphere just isn’t the same.
For one thing, the legendary Irish flair for conversation has dried up. “It’s great in here without the smoke, isn’t it?” “Amazing.” “I won’t need to have a shower and wash every item of clothing every time I come home from having a drink or two.” “Indeed.” Ad infinitum. A few smokers have complained that they’re losing their place in the pub-chat every time they have to step outside for a cigarette, but they’re missing nothing. Oxygen deprivation must have been a key component in the madly wandering discourses of yore.
The only variation comes when it’s a journalist talking to a pub-owner, in which case the conversation revolves around the amount of business allegedly being driven away and the amount of money he spent on state-of-the-air ventilation only last year.
If Ireland is the last place you’d imagine succumbing to this sort of ‘dictatorship’ (the word weakly being thrown around by some sulking smokers), think again. It’s the first place in the EU to take this measure, and compliance, it seems, has been beyond New York and California proportions. (In those places, ironically, Irish pubs have often been among the lawless refuges from anti-smoking laws.)
Acts of resistance? Well, the largest opposition party, hopelessly conservative Fine Gael, has had to fire its justice spokesman for insistently smoking, while muttering about ‘the nanny state’, in the Dail (parliament) members’ bar. But it appears that particular workplace may find itself an exempt space where the law-makers can drink and smoke, as usual making a mockery of the common people, and joining a few other workplaces, notably jails and mental hospitals, in the loophole. (Insert your politician joke here.) A few other politically connected publicans are saying they won’t enforce the ban — there are only 300 inspectors, main working 9 to 5, and ‘informing’ remains a national taboo — and they plan to make it an issue in the local and European elections this June.
“Just try it,” seems to be the Government’s response. One country pub has made its own loophole with politically charged wit: replacing a window pane with a set of stocks through which a smoker must stick his/her head to smoke ‘outside’. In areas near the border with Northern Ireland, there’s grumbling that people will cross to the British-controlled jurisdiction to smoke and drink. More frivolously, the anomalies are parsed: how come you can go to jail for smoking, but you can smoke in jail? How come herbal cigarettes are okay? But the general feeling, based on opinion polls as well as the bland conversational approval for the measure, is that this ban is a vote-winner. Most people don’t smoke, and most smokers are too ambivalent about their habit to make a stand for it. Now if they tried to ban drinking…
The Government needed this distraction. The health service itself is in a disgraceful shambles; high levels of high-level corruption continue to be exposed in various tribunals; and any remaining scraps of military neutrality have been thrown to the American wolves. Not only is Shannon airport being used by more than 10,000 US troops every month, but this week an airport near Dublin has been hosting a US military transport flying the Jolly Roger. The Government claims it was just a refueling stop, but it’s been reported that largo cargo was unloaded, possibly even riot gear for the coming May Day EU summit and George Bush’s visit in June.
But sure, why would we be complaining about any of that when they’ve made the pubs smoke-free? Much of the goodwill toward the measure is based on admirable solidarity with bar workers, whose union wholeheartedly approves the ban. Dubious statistics are thrown about in their support: from the highest conceivable number of passive-smoking fatalities we’ve got the soundbite that the ban will save the lives of 150 bar workers a year, and we’re left to presume that the effect will begin immediately.
But whatever the reality, you couldn’t begrudge them, or their peers in cafes and restaurants, a single smoke-free night. Same goes for those mainstays of the Irish pub of tourist legend, musicians. We’ve been hearing this week of the horrible cardio-pulmonary histories of non-smoking fiddlers, and singers have been warbling about the throat-clearing properties of a smokeless venue.
So even if a pub doesn’t quite look or feel like a pub any more without the pall of smoke, and as the patina of tar and nicotine gradually fades from its walls, there’s hope that the new law might actually help preserve the institution, and its most valued residents. If nothing else, it’s provided a new excuse for going to the local: “I came down for some fresh air.”
HARRY BROWNE is a journalist and a lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology. This article was written for Ireland’s Evening Herald newspaper. He can be contacted at email@example.com