Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A self-enforcing law?

It’s often claimed that the smoking ban is effectively self-enforcing, but the reality is not quite so simple, as this exchange between me and another contributor on a non beer-related forum (in a members-only section) illustrates:

A. N. Other: In my experience there certainly seems to be a remarkable degree of compliance with the ban and very little defiance - if there was a silent majority against the ban or even a large minority against it I very much doubt this would be the case.

Curmudgeon: By the very obviousness of breaking it, it is a law that is likely to result in a high degree of compliance, but compliance doesn't necessarily equate to acceptance. And, of course, smokers can simply withdraw their custom. Since 2007, according to statistics produced by the BBPA, beer sales in British pubs have fallen by 25% and over 8,000 pubs have closed.

A. N. Other: I'm not sure that I accept that. Speeding is also very obvious and yet the law is widely flouted. I think compliance with the smoking ban is in the first instance brought about by the law, and secondly is made effective by it now being a socially accepted norm. I'm not aware that it's required a huge amount of enforcement by the police or the courts, or even by pub landlords - it seems to be pretty much self-policing, which is a good result if you ask me.

Curmudgeon: I would say that is due to the fact that the risk of prosecution lies with the licensee for "permitting smoking", not the individual smoker, and the potential penalties are livelihood-threatening. It is simply not worth the risk for any licensee to turn a blind eye to it. If only individual smokers were liable to prosecution, then I'm sure many licensees would say to their customers “OK folks, I'll let you smoke in the back room, but don't blame me if you get nicked”. I have heard numerous reports of pubs having smoking “lock-ins”, and one pub near me which closed a few months ago apparently had a mass "smoke-in" on its final night.

Taking the analogy with speeding a bit further, if roads were privately owned and their owners were liable to prosecution for "permitting speeding", then they would ensure there was virtually no speeding. Not that I am proposing that, of course.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone light up in a pub since the ban came in, and there have been very few prosecutions. But that is because people are not just “obeying the law”, they are obeying the house rules as well. It’s not just them who would get it in the neck, it would be the licensee. Indeed, it would probably just be the licensee.

Take away that particular aspect of the law and a wave of mass civil disobedience, tacitly encouraged by licensees, would probably make the ban dead in the water within days.

Aberystwyth has recently been in the news as a cock-up between police and local council has effectively left the town without any parking enforcement, leading to a “parking free-for-all”. It would be interesting to speculate what the results would be if it became known that a particular local authority was not enforcing the smoking ban. My money would go on an equitable sorting out of smoking and non-smoking facilities in a short period of time.

It’s also worth adding that, before the ban, compliance with designated non-smoking areas in pubs tended to be well-nigh 100%.