Smokers consigned to sidewalks as Ireland pioneers indoor ban

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Smokers hid in toilet stalls or shivered outside Monday as Ireland's ban on tobacco in the workplace -- including the country's 10,000 usually smoky pubs -- began its first divisive day.

Over lunchtime pints, Dublin friends and work mates argued over the merits of outlawing cigarettes indoors -- until the smokers ducked outside and began puffing away on city sidewalks choked with exhaust fumes.

Health Minister Micheal Martin, who pushed for three years to ban workplace smoking, celebrated with anti-smoking activists at Bewley's tea house in downtown Dublin. He predicted other European nations would soon follow Ireland's example.

Ireland's sweeping ban is the world's strictest national law, though several individual U.S. states and cities have similarly rough prohibitions. However, the Irish version goes beyond measures in California and Delaware, which just prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants.

In the blue-collar pubs of north Dublin, Martin's crusade provoked both joy and fury.

"This is the worst idea any Irish government's ever had," said Gerry O'Connor, 32, a prison guard sitting sullenly in a corner of John Doyle's pub. He'd just been busted trying to sneak a smoke in the pub's lavatory.

"He stayed in the loo too long. I smelled smoke, went in and could hear him puffing, puffing, puffing behind the door," said barman John Golding, who ordered the offending butt extinguished.

'Peer pressure over a pint'

"I think this ban's a great idea. Until now I've gone home from work with a hacking cough and a sore throat from the smoke," said Golding, 21. "The ban means there's going to be a lot more people quitting. No more peer pressure over a pint."

Ireland's airwaves and barstool discussions have been dominated by debate over the rights and wrongs of smoking -- its role in the easygoing pub atmosphere, versus the cancer and other deadly diseases it causes.

A government National Smokers Helpline has been inundated with calls from people seeking nicotine patches, counseling and other break-the-habit aids. A second line, opened Monday, fielded calls from people reporting pubs and other businesses violating the ban.

A few pub owners vowed Monday to ignore the ban, saying they couldn't afford to turn away loyal smoking customers. The government has warned that its 41 environmental health inspectors will mount undercover inspections if pubs ignore the law, which carries a maximum fine of $3,700.

Opinion polls suggest a strong majority supports the ban in this country of 3.9 million, where about 30 percent of adults smoke. Feelings run deep on the issue.

The moment O'Connor started to bemoan the oppression he was suffering, his prison guard colleague Sean Donaghue, sitting at the next stool, bit his head off.

"You're talking a load of bollocks, Gerry. This is the greatest day Ireland's ever seen," said Donaghue, 55.

"I've already had one bypass operation, a coronary stent in an artery, I've got diabetes -- I'm living proof that cigarettes are killers," added Donaghue, who quit five years ago.

He said the smoke in pubs had forced him to give up his favorite recreation, playing guitar and banjo in a traditional band. "My surgeon told me I was inhaling so much smoke in the pubs I might as well be smoking myself," he said.

O'Connor defiantly insisted cigarettes were blamed for too many ills.

"My dad died last year of lung cancer, and he only smoked once a year at Christmas," he said. "There's probably more cancer-causing chemicals in the air outside the front door."

That comment drew a disbelieving roar from a neighboring table -- a group of workers from Dublin's overloaded Beaumont Hospital, where patients sometimes wait for hours, even days, on emergency trolleys for a bed.

"Practically everybody we see in the hospital is suffering from something to do with smoking," said hospital pharmacist John Byrne, 50, a lifelong nonsmoker. "I love the pub, and I'm really pleased that I'm going to enjoy clean air seven days a week -- there's nothing worse than that smoke."

The ban includes a few notable exceptions. Rooms in hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals and prison cells can't be covered by the ban because, legally, they are also private residences. That means prison guard O'Connor can't smoke at work but the convicts can.

"I want my smoke firsthand, not secondhand," he complained.

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