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On eve of smoking ban, doubts abound in Ireland

Saturday, March 27, 2004

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Ireland is about to ban tobacco from workplaces, but rebellion hangs heavy in the air -- particularly in that smokiest of places, the pub. "I won't be enforcing it and I won't be telling my staff to enforce it, simple as that," pub owner Danny Healy-Rae said of the ban, which takes effect Monday and applies to any enclosed work space -- more than 10,000 pubs, as well as billiard halls, private clubs, home offices, even a lone trucker's cab.

"We've a busy enough job to do here as it is, and we can't be chasing people into the television lounge or the toilets," added Healy-Rae, whose pub is in the County Kerry village of Kilgarvan -- where, as is typical in rural Ireland, most customers smoke.

"We'll have to just let everyone smoke away as usual and the hell with what they say in Dublin."

Ever since Health Minister Micheal Martin proposed the ban last year, surveys have shown a majority of Ireland's 3.9 million people -- about 25 percent of whom are smokers -- support the idea. It would be the most sweeping restriction on cigarette smoking imposed by any nation.

But enforcing the ban could be difficult.

Under the guidelines of the government's Office of Tobacco Control, pub owners can face fines of up to $4,000 per offense if they fail to make "all reasonable efforts" to deter smoking.

The guidelines specify pubs should display "no smoking" signs prominently at their entrances, bar areas and restrooms. Bar staff should tell smokers they're committing an offense, then, if they don't stop, refuse to serve them and ask them to leave.

If the customer refuses, the guidelines suggest calling the national police force.

Police officers have reacted with outrage.

"It's not a function for a police force at all. We haven't resources to deal with far more serious issues, never mind dealing with obstreperous smokers," said P.J. Stone, spokesman for the officers' main union.

The ban's key enforcers are about 40 Health Department inspectors, who will be responsible for spotting violations in pubs and hotels. Another 100 inspectors from the Health and Safety Authority -- who currently monitor building sites, farms and other workplaces -- will be asked to check for smoking employees, too.

The government has hired no additional inspectors to enforce the ban.

"There will be all-hours inspection," said Martin, who added: "Most people don't smoke, so there will be strong compliance."

Pubgoers predict that in tight-knit rural villages, pub owners will risk a fine rather than turn away familiar faces.

"This is a middle-class ban for city-center pubs in Dublin and a few other cities and towns," said Terry Rafferty, a retired bank manager and pub connoisseur from western County Mayo.

"In Dublin you've got huddles of health-conscious people, trendies. But out in the sticks, forget it -- they're still very happily health-unconscious."

Joe Browne, president of the Vintners Federation, which represents 6,000 pubs outside Dublin, has pledged to help cover defense costs for any pub owner taken to court for violating the ban.

Cigarette-machine vendors have imported more than 1 million tobacco-free "herbal" cigarettes, which, though carcinogenic, are not covered by the ban.

"Initially we expect there will be a novelty factor and we should sell quite a few on the first weekend," said Gerry Lawlor, spokesman for the Irish Cigarette Machine Operators' Association. "But it will probably fall off. I don't anticipate making a living out of it."

On the Net:

Office of Tobacco Control, www.otc.ie

Licensed Vintners Association statements on ban, www.lva.ie/press.html

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