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An Oral History of Britain's Smoking Ban

Ten years after it was introduced, we talk to the politicians, campaigners and pub owners instrumental in making the ban happen – and the DJs and promoters who lived with the consequences.
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On the 1st of July, 2007 – ten years ago this week – the UK introduced the Smoking Ban. The Health Bill 2007 stated that not only restaurants, but pubs, clubs, bars and any other indoor places of work would face penalties and risk losing their licences if they allowed smokers to spark up inside their premises. No more smoking rooms in offices, no more smoking areas in restaurants. It was the strictest possible legislation.


So, overnight, the big grey coughing and spluttering elephant in the room plodded onto the pavement, to smoke outside. This is an account of the ban's introduction to the UK.


Deborah Arnott, director of Action on Smoking and Health: The culture was that smokers felt it was their right to smoke, and they didn't really consider the impact on those around them. The pubs were quite disgusting, and it also had health impacts on workers. By 2003, research showed that if you're exposed to second-hand smoke and you're not a smoker, your risks of getting lung cancer or having a heart attack were significantly increased.

Lord Andrew Lansley, Conservative shadow Health Secretary 2004-2010: The mortality issues were significantly more than we had previously thought.

Vivienne Nathanson, then-director of professional activities at the British Medical Association: We'd gradually got the numbers of smokers down, so it was effectively about cutting second-hand smoke.

Andy Blake, DJ and promoter of World Unknown: I know it's unhealthy and it's not fair, but I always thought it doesn't really matter if people smoked in clubs or not.

Deborah Arnott: Fifty percent of workplaces were smoke-free by then, but in pubs or bars, workers weren't protected. We made the debate about the impact on workers and their rights, and based on that idea the campaign really caught fire.

Vivienne Nathanson: It was about getting the public and politicians to a stage of recognising that this was something that could be done.


Andrew Lansley: By about 2004 we were aware that there was a likelihood of a bill being brought forward. I said to Deborah that we, as the Conservative's health team, were keen to see legislation brought in, but it was unlikely we would secure a party-level commitment to it.

Patricia Hewitt, Labour MP, Health Secretary 2005-2007: I came in with a manifesto commitment which promised to ban smoking in enclosed public places.

Photo: Stuart Griffiths


Eric Joyce, Labour MP for Falkirk, 2000-2005: John Reid had been Health Secretary until very shortly before, and had tee'd up the legislation. He was strongly opposed to banning smoking in clubs, as was Tony Blair. Both saw the sense of avoiding "moral" legislation and both were concerned with the effect on lower income folk who used clubs to socialise in, especially at weekends.

Vivienne Nathanson: A frustration had built up, because we had 20 to 25 percent of people smoking overall, but up to 80 percent in some poor communities that we weren't cracking.

Patricia Hewitt: I was a member of the New Parks Social Club, which was a wonderful working men's club in my constituency – I'm sure it still is. It played a really important role in this working class community on this council estate. I used to go there, and the smoke in the atmosphere was just appalling, but of course they were terrified of the ban.

Eric Joyce: The assumption was that we'd constrain the lives of folk to whom a fag, a drink and a chat were great pleasures in otherwise not altogether super lives.


Vivienne Nathanson: The fact is, if you are poor, the last thing you need is to be addicted to something that is difficult to afford, that takes away money that you need to pay for the essentials of life.

Andrew Lansley: I do remember John Reid. He said something along the lines of, "If you take one of their few remaining pleasures away from them…" It wasn't quite how I think many people saw it.

Eric Joyce: They thought, you know, 'Fuck off, you educated, posh ponces, telling us what to do in our private lives.' And, of course, we'd also kill off lots of the clubs dependent on such income – including some Labour clubs, of which I had a big one.

Deborah Arnott: John Reid's special adviser said to me: "It's not about the risks; it's, 'Show me the votes.'" They were worried smokers would be this big lobby of core Labour votes and they'd be really strongly against it. He eventually put in these amendments to not place the ban on premises that didn't serve food.


Patricia Hewitt: This notion of licensed premises that don't serve food sounds really simple, but there isn't a list of pubs that have kitchens or not – they're just licensed premises. Maybe with bowls of nuts on the bar, packets of crisps, sandwiches wrapped in shrink wrap on the bar, you know, so where do you draw the line?

Deborah Arnott: It was a nightmare for the trade. John did it because public opinion polls showed that everyone wanted restaurants to be smoke-free, but the support wasn't quite as strong for pubs. But radio programmes found that if they ran a story on the smoking ban, masses of people would phone up. They really cared about it. It became a big public conversation, and people supported the ban.


David Cheskin/PA Images


Eddie Gershon, spokesperson of JD Wetherspoon: Wetherspoon as a company has always seen itself as very innovative; it'd had no smoking in pubs for up to 15 years. It wasn't for health reasons or specific do-good reasons, they just thought it was a very commercial thing to do. Food became more of our trade. Tim [Martin, founder and chair of JD Wetherspoon] was very good at winding lots of people up, and while the whole industry was panicking about the ban, he said, "This is a great idea," and sent me off with a couple of journalists to New York and San Francisco, to see how the ban was doing.

Rory Phillips, DJ at Trash/Durrr: The places that tended to have the smoking ban were places like LA, that had terraces for smoking. It's also an outdoorsy place, and London's not that.

Andy Blake: In the 90s, I would play with DJs who'd come back from the States; they said everyone was going out on the street to smoke and having this social interaction, but it was kicking the arse out of the dance floors a bit.

Patricia Hewitt: In Australia, New York and other places where they had a ban, it became more popular as the debates developed, and even more popular once they actually did it.

Gemma Clarke, whose family owned Nambucca from 2007-2014: When I was in Babyshambles with Pete Doherty, we were playing in Dublin – where the smoking ban was in – and I didn't realise it. In the morning, I was in the local builders' greasy spoon and I lit a cigarette and everyone ran to me like, "Oh, you're smoking!" and they chucked me out.


Hatcha, producer and DJ: I totally understand when you're down the caff in the morning and people are sitting having cigarettes and you're in the restaurant eating – a ban totally makes sense.

Gemma Clarke: That night on stage, people used to throw cigarettes at Peter – I don't know why, but he went to light it and we were like, "No, no, no, no, no!" The tech said it was a £2,000 fine to light a cigarette, and Peter was on stage going to the crowd, "Shall I light it? Shall I light it?" All the band were going: "Noooo! It's £2,000, we can't afford it, stop!" So I'd totally got embarrassed, thrown out of a caff and he was teasing about lighting it! He didn't in the end.


Deborah Arnott: Kevin Barron, the Labour MP for Rother Valley, had been very active on tobacco control prior to that; he'd propsed an advertising ban on cigarettes.

Patricia Hewitt: I don't know whether he got paid for it, but he had a role with the General Medical Council.

Deborah Arnott: So when he became chair of the Health Committee in 2005, he got members from all parties to put their name to smoking ban legislation. It was absolutely crucial; we needed this to stop being a party-political issue.

Andrew Lansley: I said to Vivienne quite early on that as long as they didn't push us into a for-it or against-it I might be able to secure out of David Cameron and the shadow cabinet an agreement that this would be regarded as a matter of personal decision.


Deborah Arnott: Andrew persuaded Cameron to allow a free vote.

Andrew Lansley: I didn't want us to get into a big row ourselves, because that could have easily taken over and made the public very aware of Conservative opposition. It drove up the possibility of a free vote on the Labour benches, too.

Patricia Hewitt: Tessa and I were both unhappy with the proposed exemption [on places not serving food], and on health grounds it wasn't justified – it wouldn't protect people from other people's smoke.

Eric Joyce: Private clubs would have been required to ensure that no employees had to be exposed to smoke – this meant putting a room aside with extractors where members would take their drinks and, crucially, return the glasses empty to the bar.

Andrew Lansley: The pressure that the Labour party brought on Patricia to go for a full ban made her position difficult, because she had secured an agreement that there would be limitation on the extent of the ban, particularly in relation to clubs, which presumably were for a minority of Labour MPs who felt very strongly about this issue.

Eric Joyce: Tom Watson, on behalf of Gordon Brown, organised an attempted coup against Blair right then, and the deception meant an amendment was quietly slipped through. It removed the ability of the government to allow exemptions for any licensed premise, extending the ban to clubs in their entirety. The "smoking rooms" idea was killed. We'd essentially been duped.


Patricia Hewitt: My working men's club really tried to persuade me to keep the exemption [for establishments not serving food], and in the end I just thought, 'For health reasons I cannot do that, I can't vote for that.' It was very sad – I don't think they ever forgave me.


Hatcha: The cigarette ban has had a ripple effect on everything.

Gemma Clarke: It was an absolute, blooming nightmare, because you've got to track down staff that were having fag breaks or band members out smoking when they were meant to be on stage, or a sound engineer going, "I just need a minute for a quick fag," when we were running late.

Andy C, producer and DJ: The first couple of weekends was a bit of a logistical shitshow in terms of working out how you're gonna get people up and down the stairs and out a doorway into the smoking area.

Craig Seymour, publican at The Hawley Arms in Camden: There was kind of a little sense of disbelief that it was going to happen.

Patricia Hewitt: We wanted to keep it as simple as possible, so that effectively public opinion would enforce it – people in public places would say, "Oi, you're not allowed to smoke here."

Craig Seymour: When it tipped over to 12 we did a kind of "fuck you" and all sparked up cigars behind the bar. We couldn't quite believe that it was going to happen, and when it did it was a bit of a culture shock, you know.


Patricia Hewitt: We had a phone number that you could ring if the law was being broken, and actually I think hardly anyone did, because the ban was so popular.


Eddie Gershon: The ban attracted waves of families – kids in Wetherspoon pubs is a massive part of the offer.

Andy C: The benefit of it is that you don't come out at the end of the night smelling of smoke.

Rory Phillips: But you could smell body odour, farts and just all the smells that had been masked by cigarette smoke for years.

Andy Blake: People's oniony roll they've just finished eating pervading the dance floor – that's always a, "Oh, do bring back smoking" moment.

Craig Seymour: Pubs went from smelling of stale smoke to what a room full of drunk people would smell like, which is basically farts, BO, that kind of thing. Please don't put in print that The Hawley Arms smells of farts and BO.

Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/PA Images


Craig Seymour: A few people kicked off – particularly people of the older generation who had been drinking in pubs their whole lives. I heard Keith Richards refused to give up smoking in pubs and just paid the fine every time. I think it was about £250, something like that [it's £2,500]. Obviously for someone like Keith Richards that's pocket money.

Hatcha: Everyone was sulking and moaning about it, but it wasn't that much of a big deal in the big clubs – the fabrics and the Ministry of Sounds.

Craig Seymour: You'd get a bit of a division, where people who smoked all night would spend most of their night outside, so that's when outdoor areas became lots more important. We had to make sure we had awnings covering customers from the lovely weather that we get here.


Rory Phillips: At The End, especially, there was a noticeable drop in the numbers, literally within weeks. I dunno, it just seemed like London wasn't ready for it.

Hatcha: When you were playing the little collective nights that only had 100, 200, 300 people in, you only had to have 10 to 20 people out in the smoking area and you could see it affect the dance floor, and you'd think, 'Oh shit, it's bloody poxy.'

Andy Blake: There was a stage when certain music [came on] – much artier records that take a little while to catch fire – that would be when people said, "Here we go, this one isn't kicking off, let's have a fag now."

Rory Phillips: Like when you go to the bar when the band plays the ballads.

Andy Blake: It must have changed, even if only subtly, how people DJ.

Andy C: I always want to keep the dance floor as packed as possible, so if I did see people slinking off I started pulling some bangers out to keep them on the floor.

Andy Blake: You used to have little clusters of people in groups, passing a cigarette, or joint or even a bottle of poppers. But the minute there's no cigarette, obviously you can't smoke joints inside – it all kind of changes.

Hatcha: You found a lot of weed smokers not coming out because, before, security couldn't find them and just let them do it. But after, them people there couldn't go outside and have a joint because then they're on the streets. They've then got to walk around, find somewhere to smoke a joint and come back in. It just ends up being a whole palaver.


Andy Blake: You can do a quick dab of MDMA and no one's going to notice you doing it, though.

Hatcha: The ban didn't affect the people who took the MDMA and the ecstasy and the coke. And once people are under the influence of their drugs, to a certain extent they do like to chain-smoke. They get in the smoking area and just sit there all night chatting.

Rory Phillips: I guess different kind of communities formed from the people who just met in smoking areas. You can actually talk to each other at a reasonable volume.

Hatcha: I found myself going out to the smoking area for a quick cigarette, seeing a group of people, going back out there four or five hours later and the same little group of people were still in their own little world, smoking.

Andy Blake: The smoking areas in the clubs in the middle of London aren't very big, so everyone's getting kind of herded around, it's a bizarre cattle train full of blue smoke – it's got to be even less healthy than even regular smoking of cigarettes.

Deborah Arnott: The misery now is if you want to sit outside you have to sit in a really smoky area; it means that the smoke is diffused in a way it can't be indoors.

Gemma Clarke: We sometimes had a 24-hour licence, so people could be stood out there until 4, 5, 6 o'clock in the morning and that's legal. But then we would have to handle all the residents complaining and the council coming round.


Rory Phillips: You're taking volume outside, and it's typical of residents to have a club investigated or shut down. Because the clubs weren't built with outdoor smoking in mind. Pubs definitely weren't built with that in mind.

Gemma Clarke: There was noise and drinking outside – you had to sweep the streets if someone smashed a glass or a bottle. The bouncers would have a nightmare trying to keep people in check.

Andrew Lansley: The general working assumption was that though none of this would necessarily be ideal, we would rather people gave up smoking. And actually the issue was about passive smoking, and to that extent if people were outside, even if they're on the pavement, they're not going to be causing other people the harm that they would otherwise do.

Andy C: I think quite a few clubs had issues with regards to residents complaining about noise and disruption and whatnot. They seemingly have all closed. I'm sure that's not because of the smoking ban; it's because of draconian laws and a whole different story.

Eddie Gershon: If you speak to most people, the smoking ban has been a boon for pubs, no doubt about it.

Craig Seymour: Places that have really big beer gardens have done really well off of the smoking ban, so to say that the smoking ban is the main factor for a lot of pubs closing would be false, but I think it's one of many factors that has made it difficult for publicans to make a living.


Gemma Clarke: The council is on music venues for such a massive list of reasons, and one of them is noise. For a music venue, unless you're one of those huge huge stadiums… it's a big part of why all those venues are closing.

Deborah Arnott: Mark Easton, social affairs correspondent for the BBC, looked at how pubs and restaurants are classified, and the total number of licensed premises in the year after the legislation came in – the number of clubs went down, but the number of restaurants went up, because a lot of pubs became reclassified. Pubs closed because of the economic circumstances and because they weren't offering what people wanted, not because of the smoking ban.

Gemma Clarke: I just thought, 'Well, you know, these are over-18 places – you can't go in with drinks unless you're over 18,' and I think at that same age you should be able to handle smoking in the air as well.

Eric Joyce: Lots of clubs died off, of course.

Rory Phillips: There was a dip in clubs, but it all came back eventually. The bingo halls, though. They credit the ban for putting them out of business. It's the most British of things.


Craig Seymour: I smoke more now than when the smoking ban came in, so I haven't seen the health benefit of it, but it's a lot nicer environment to work in rather than having people blowing smoke in your face all the time.

Patricia Hewitt: This wasn't part of the intention, but we also found quite a lot of smokers said, "You know, I was against it at the time, but actually I really like it and it's made it easier for me to give up smoking."

Vivienne Nathanson: We've seen a diminution in cardiac-related deaths, and that is related, at least in part, to the smoking ban.

Eddie Gershon: We run pubs; we're not the Jamie Oliver side of things where we get righteous about stuff – we're not a health campaign group. If there's been a byproduct that a lot of people have stopped smoking or smoke less when they're out, that's great for them, but that's not our raison d'etre.

Eric Joyce: Subsequent academic research showed that children were exposed to more smoke at home because their parents bought take-outs from supermarkets – which were cheaper than clubs anyway – and smoked and drank at home much more.

Patricia Hewitt: The Chief Medical Officer came to see me shortly afterwards and he said, "This is extraordinary; we are already seeing an improvement in heart disease rates, and the only thing we can attribute it to was the smoking ban."


An earlier version of this article said Kevin Barron "brought in" an advertising ban on cigarettes when he simply proposed the change. It also mistakenly attributed a quote about outdoor smoking being a health hazard to Deborah Arnott, this has been removed.