Why smoking where food is served should be banned

I may not be the most appropriate person to confront the topic of whether smoking in public places where food is served, currently the subject of Gareth Thomas MP for Harrow West's Private Member's bill, should be prohibited by law.

I am an enthusiastic cigar smoker. As a restaurateur I sold cigarettes and cigars and gave away matches with my restaurant's phone number on them. And I made no attempt to divide any of the different rooms of the restaurant into smoking and non-smoking areas. I stand guilty of exposing my staff and non-smoking customers to the dangers of passive smoking.

I will not let this guilty past stand in the way of the facts, however. Thomas's bill should become law at the first available opportunity. When it does so it will benefit the vast majority of today's customers; cajole the British restaurant industry into a course of action that many deep down approve of but are afraid to implement on their own and, I believe, significantly improve not just the quality of service but also the industry's recruitment prospects, currently its Achilles heel.

But enough of opinion, first a few facts.

It is impossible to divide a restaurant effectively into smoking and non-smoking areas. One restaurateur I spoke to compared this to 'drawing a line in the sand'. Smoke permeates everywhere and everything and no amount or combination of extraction, doors and windows can effectively combat this. Nor is it feasible from a management perspective. Staff cannot be restricted to working in just non-smoking rooms – they will inevitably pass from one to another – nor could any manager or waiter stop a customer passing in either direction. The commonality of the lavatories is another obstacle. Half-measures don't work.

And these half-measures work just as unsatisfactorily for the waiting staff. Another restaurateur who began his working career as a commis waiter before climbing the greasy pole and who still enjoys the odd smoke after dinner replied to my questioning with the following retort. 'How would you like to come home at night smelling like a kipper after an evening working in a smoked-filled room?'

His concern is now much broader. Most restaurants now offer good career prospects, competitive salaries, flexible hours and no longer have an image problem but the very best, the most sensitive, can still be put off by the prospect of a working life in the fug. Remove this obstacle and the quality of service will improve too.

I think that if those opposed to smoking had concentrated on these positive aspects they might have made more headway to date. They have instead portrayed themselves as a discriminated-against minority, forced to sit in a non-smoking section close to the kitchen or lavatories or treated as second class customers by restaurateurs because their smoking counterparts stay longer and therefore spend more.

Both assumptions are inaccurate today. Non-smoking sections are invariably away from the front door and any windows because the restaurant, with less than adequate ventilation, can get rid of at least some of the smoke if the smokers are as close as possible to the fresh air. Also if the non-smoking section is closer to the kitchen it does mean the food travels, for a few seconds at least, through what passes for fresh air in our urban jungles.

And the image of a group of cigarette-smoking customers sitting around ordering into the late afternoon or early morning is long out of date. Firstly, restaurants make hardly any money out of tobacco with the exception perhaps of specific cigar clubs. Secondly, smoking is an appetite depressant so whilst it stimulates coffee sales it does not encourage the higher ticket food items. And, finally, smokers are less likely to be enthusiastic wine drinkers, again reducing their spend.

Data from the US backs this up. In California there has been no evidence of a decline in revenues since the state's restaurants and bars were forced to go smoke-free. Restaurateurs in New York are still unsure – business for many is currently awful thanks to a combination of the war, the economy, bad weather and a lack of tourism – but if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, inevitably voted the city's number one and two by the restaurant-going public, went voluntarily smoke-free a decade ago.

A similar ban in the UK will have only beneficial effects. The biggest opponents will undoubtedly be the pub/bar operators because the clientèle they most want to attract are young women amongst whom smoking is widespread (attract the women and the men follow is their marketing philosophy). But the attraction of the opposite sexes for each other certainly pre-dated cigarettes and I am confident will outlive them.

The entire House of Commons must support this bill. The Government, slowly waking up to the importance of the tourist, leisure and restaurant industries, must do the same and appreciate just what a boost to tourism it would be if the UK were the first country to ban smoking throughout its restaurants – a far more effective marketing tool than their current, trite new campaign 'staying at home is the new going away'.

This is not an extension of the Nanny State, rather common sense reinforced by economic and health data. And also, I believe, the realisation that in due course we will look back on this era when smoking by a minority was permitted to oppress and damage the health of the non-smoking majority as we look back today with shame and disgust on our Victorian forebears who, despite their desire for economic and social progress still sent young children down the mines and up the chimneys.

Restaurant Of The Week

Volume in the restaurant business usually refers either to the number of customers that can be served at any one time or the number who walk past the front door but at Shaun Hill's The Merchant House, one of a trio of fine, small restaurants in Ludlow, Shropshire, it refers to the music playing in the kitchen.

Normally, it is opera – Don Giovanni gets an airing once or twice a week – or piano pieces by Beethoven and Mozart as Hill prepares the unfussy food which has won him recognition as an enthralling Anglo-Irish chef. His menu may include lobster with chick peas, coriander and an olive oil sauce; steamed turbot with asparagus; local veal with braised haricots and morels; and light, tangy desserts such as a rhubarb tart with ginger custard or strawberries with honey and brandy ice cream.

The music does not interfere with the skilful preparation of any of these dishes because Hill cooks in splendid isolation. His full brigade is now three – himself and Anja, his wife, who runs the restaurant with a waiter – rising to four when there is a need for a part-time cleaner – so there is no chatter, noise or bustle to drown out the singing.

Because the restaurant only seats 22, booking ahead is essential, a week ahead for a midweek dinner or either Friday or Saturday lunch, but much further ahead at the moment for Friday and Saturday evenings. But it is worth it – and not just for the music.

The Merchant House
Lower Corve Street, Ludlow, Shropshire, SY8 1DU (tel 01584-875438)
Open Tuesday-Saturday dinner, lunch Friday and Saturday. Lunch £27.50, dinner £33 three courses, including service.