[12 May 2004]
The recent implementation of the complete workplace smoking ban in Ireland has been the cause of clear and positive effects. It’s certainly been the biggest lifestyle event since . . . mobile phones. The ban has not only raised smoking as a major health issue with full governmental force, so that all non-, reformed- and unwilling secondary-smokers can feel healthier and vaguely justified, but it has finally cleared the fug from Irish pubs. And pubs being central to Irish life, this is no small feat. Amazingly, it happened overnight without gradual or half-baked concessions and introductory measures without too much governmental pussyfooting. The deep end beckoned and everyone jumped.
The famous smoky Irish fug (pub fog) makes its last, creeping presence felt within the confines of editorial column spaces. Veritable miles, not inches, of newspaper are being devoted to airing personal liberties and the right to light up with a pint. Journalists wonder, will the government seriously enforce the law, even in remote country pubs? Will it get tough only because the rest of the EU is watching the issue so closely? That is all the usual editorial second-guessing going on.
But the truth is that it has worked, thus far, and pubs have never been so pleasant. I’m not sure if it’s the threat of heavy fines for offenders and publicans alike, but smokers are being good-humoured sports about it. Even the reformed ex-smokers like yours truly (some say the worst kind) are noddingly amused. And of course the encroaching spring and all its freshness lightens the issue for every smoker forced to feed his need outside. Al fresco smoking is the latest idea, at least until next winter. Indeed, “Ireland, the Al Fresco Country”, sounds like an Irish joke with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Admittedly, it was the most addicted or established smokers who blew up over their loss of civil liberties, over what they see as their government making inroads on their personal rights and freedoms, but the issue cuts both ways. For example, shortly after the ban went into affect I walked into a pub in Dalkey and was struck by the fresh absence of fug. It hadn’t entirely cleared, to be sure, but with growing wonder I began to detect other smells: the aroma of people and perfumes, of furniture fabric and food from the kitchen and something else in the air, something vaguely musty with a hint of parmesan . . . And then it hit me like a punch in the nose: I could smell old people. So there it is, another right returned to the people: the right to smell old people. Trust me, such novelties makes olfactory sense when you’re used to watering eyes and stinking clothes. I smiled benignly at every old timer passing by with his pint and paper. They gave me cheesy looks in exchange.
All the smoking young folk have to make regular and rapid trips to the front door. They frequently cast their agitated and nicotine-yellowed eyes back inside to make sure their stool and pint isn’t overtaken by a marauding pack of seniors. Every pub now has its posse of smokers huddled near the doors. Posse one shouts abuse at posse two on the other side of the street, while posse three up the road keeps everyone within shouting distance informed of the football score. They’re a good-humouredly rude bunch in turn, forcing non-smokers to walk their smoky gauntlet for ingress and egress.
Again, the ban’s positive effect for rural pubs, at least, is it serves as an indirect reminder to smokers that there is a world outside. That all sounds acutely banal until you realise that it’s the pubs that keep many people from getting adequate sunlight in the first place. Cutting your nicotine with a bit of fresh air gives you the opportunity to discuss the latest births deaths and marriages with motley passers-by and tourists, in a pleasant sort of way.
And for those pubs which aren’t putting out the all-weather chairs and ashtrays for their smoky faithful (and let’s be serious: some pubs are reporting sales losses of up to 20%), the alternative is to find better beer gardens or head to discount supermarkets like Aldi or Lidl, and stock up on cheap brews to get stinko at home. It’s hard for some people to separate their addictions, they can’t do one without the other (hence this government “intervention”). It’s like an inversion of the old “marijuana leads to heroin” adage, and it has some committed smoker/drinkers pounding the bar and espousing the paranoid conspiracy line, “Alcohol’s next! They want us to quit the smoke so it’ll be easier to give up the drink!” Which, this being Ireland of course and feel free to attempt a Sober Irishman joke here is hysterical. Sure, there’s youth binge drinking and other alcohol abuses that are heavy problems. But the best side of drinking will always be celebrated in Ireland.
It seems the last place you can safely smoke without bothering anyone in Ireland is in your car. Picture people going for drives just to smoke; see them madly sucking at cigarettes and shouting at mobile phones and traffic, dropping the clutch, grinding gears, and billowing smoke. And then bless the ambivalence of legal definitions, it turns out that company cars are “technically” considered a workplace. So all those delivery drivers, bleary eyed and desperate for chemical relief, where will they get their fix? Will they be allotted special smoking stations? Doled out al fresco herbal cigarettes? We shall see.
But to be honestly sincere and old-mannish, there are times when I do think back fondly and recall the mature pleasure of a cheap Dutch cigar and a pint of Murphy’s. And how much fun it was to stink up the place.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/breebaart040512/