Sunday, October 24, 2010

More coffin nails for the Spanish economy?

Spain has always been a long way behind when it comes to making efforts to ban smoking from public places. When I first started to live here I was amazed to find bank tellers and government officials smoking while they attended you. I was outraged when I went to register the birth of my first child and found the Registro office so smoky that my 2 week old baby had to be kept out in the corridor while we attended to the paperwork. A year or two later when I helped set up a play centre in the local town, I had to accept that smoking would be allowed in the café or “no one would come”. But it seems this is about to change and Spain is about to get some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in Europe.

After a botched and watered down attempt at a ban on smoking in bars and other public places a couple of years ago, this new “antitabaco” law looks like the real deal. The new law would, from 2nd January 2011, ban smoking in all bars, restaurants and other enclosed public spaces with very few exceptions. Also some outdoor places like the grounds of health centres and playgrounds are included in the ban. Terraces attached to bars which are not enclosed by three or more walls will be exempt. There are exceptions for some private clubs and certain proportions of space in hotels and prisons.

Another victory for health campaigners then and, despite not being militantly anti-smoking myself, I think on balance these kinds of laws quickly become accepted as the norm and the vast majority of people – smokers included – find them an improvement after a short time. The issue though is less about smokers’ rights and more about the effects on business, specifically the large and vitally important catering and hospitality industry which has been lobbying against the ban. Some people also think tax revenues from cigarette sales will hit the government’s finances and tobacconists are expected to suffer.

"The new law enrages barowners "

There could be something in these economic warnings. The Spanish economy and the government’s finances are in a precarious enough state and the UK’s experience that banning smoking, however desirable public health grounds, has had a negative effect on takings at some types of premises. I haven’t heard restaurants or hotels complaining about the smoking ban but pubs and clubs have certainly seen revenues decline over recent years. Not all their woes can be blamed on the new legislation: social trends which go back decades have left traditional pubs and places like working men’s clubs and bingo halls losing market share. The recession has taken its toll. We have been drinking less and less beer as a country for years. And there is more competition, including websites and the lottery in the case of bingo and supermarkets in the case of pubs. Some pubs, like the Wetherspoons chain, have taken on the decline and changed their offerings to, for example, capture the breakfast and coffee crowds.

What does all that mean for Spain? I think the effects could be quite significant. The small café and bar is a staple of Spanish life as, sadly, is unabashed smoking in front of other people. I can see the firm ban hitting business and shutting some of the weaker establishments. This is not a justification for putting off doing something that could save lives and set a better example for children but it’s one more reason to think 2011 won’t see any kind of rapid turnaround in the Spanish economy.


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1 comment:

  1. Here in Scotland, we banned smoking in all restaurantes, bars and public buildings a few years ago. The bar owners screamed that it would hurt business and "hundreds if not thousands" would go out of business. Guess what? It didn't happen and, better yet, the number of people smoking has fallen.


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