Pete Robinson writes for Freedom2Choose

If you are not aware I am Chairman of Freedom2Choose a pro choice lifestyles organisation. It is with great pleasure to say that Pete Robinson who is a publican and very much against the smoking ban has agreed to write for F2C. Here is his first article.

Last year The Publican magazine, a licensed trade publication, closed after 36 years. Pete Robinson was a regular blogger for The Publican and reflects on its sad demise…

So where did it all go wrong for The Publican?

Back in 2005 when a fresh-faced Hamish Champ joined the magazine’s staff as prestigious City Editor it was an excellent career move with the added bonus of occasionally getting paid to drink beer. In fact he couldn’t have struck luckier if he’d landed a job testing Durex with Britney Spears.

The Publican had just been acquired by United Business Magazines for a gutsy £21-million and was going from strength to strength in a booming industry.

A year later in 2006 Hamish gleefully reported UK pub turnover was about to hit a FIVE-YEAR-PEAK with continued growth forecast until at least 2011.

As we entered 2007 the City’s enthusiasm for the pub sector remained insatiable. Pubco shares were described as “the darlings of the stock market” with eager investors snapping up Punch shares at £14 each – yes, FOURTEEN POUNDS!

Following the gradual erosion of the 1990s the turnaround in this industry since the new millennium had been nothing short of remarkable. Then along came July 1st and the smoking ban.

As a somewhat pious ex-smoker Hamish Champ argued openly against my pro-choice stance and heavily criticised my somewhat disrespectful comments on the government-sponsored charity Cancer Research UK.

In turn I would warn him that as CRUK directly funds ASH, and both had conned the nation into the draconian smoking ban, then it could one day cost him his job. Alas, Hamish should have listened because eventually it did.

To be fair The Publican didn’t overtly support the ban, but it certainly didn’t oppose it. I guess any magazine tries to reflect the mood of its readers and with little sign of protest in the air it naturally assumed the apparent trade viewpoint of meek, resigned acceptance.

If the Publican was guilty of anything it was blind, unbridled optimism. It’s as if there’d been so much good news to report over the previous few years it was unwilling to dwell on the bad.

And bad it was, arse-wipingly bad.

Towards the end of 2007 the industry was clearly in deep trouble. The ‘New Breed’ of non-smoking drinker had failed to materialise and the long exodus of the pub trade’s life blood, its rank-and-file customers, was already underway. Pub insolvencies were already up 600%, a number that would TREBLE in the following year to EIGHTEEN TIMES former rates, while those prized industry shares were nosediving into the cellar.

Yet at the time you’d never have guessed any of this by reading The Publican. The main consensus was how smoothly and successfully the ban had been implemented. Every ‘industry ‘spokesman’ and his dog queued up to insist their business had been totally unaffected by the ban and each was reported in equal, laborious measure.

I’m sure the smart pubs and wine bars were doing okay around the Publican’s plush offices on London’s trendy South Bank, and perhaps still are. However this only served to insulate the editorial staff from the grim reality sweeping across the rest of the country everywhere north of Watford.

In one 2007 Publican article I remember a smoking-ban ‘official’ assuring worried publicans that “it normally takes around 3 months for lost trade to return”.

Eh? WTF? I was staggered such a fatuous comment went unchallenged. This eejit had no right nor evidence to make such an unsubstantiated statement yet it was reported as if it were gospel.

By 2008 the post-ban carnage could no longer be ignored. But as the rapidly plummeting trade stats settled into a terminal spiral of descent the Publican’s editorial opinion switched to naively blaming ‘bad’ pubs which had been unable to evolve.

‘Embrace’ the smoking ban we were told. Just do food and everything will be okay. Up your game, open a library/post office/cinema in your pub. Set aside a lunchtime for expectant mothers or an evening for transvestite grandads.

Just offer ‘excellence’ then watch the customers come running.

How do you ‘evolve’ to a 33% to 80% drop in takings? Even if it were possible for the country to sustain 40-odd-thousand foodie pub-restaurants, for many it was madness to invest a fortune in pricey catering equipment when local competitors were offering £2.99 two-for-one deals.

In truth the customers we’ve lost don’t want excellence. Most pubgoers couldn’t give a toss about fine dining, health emporiums, creches, drop-in centres or gymnasiums. They simply want to be treated like adults. They want their old pubs back, warts an’ all.

During the summer of 2008 the recession kicked off as the ‘credit crunch’ and that was that. At last everyone had something to blame it all on despite pubs trading well throughout all previous recessions.

And that’s pretty much the story up to today. The pub game is still up shit creek and if they had a paddle they’d be rowing even deeper into the murky waters of complete denial.

In 2010 The Publican’s own survey showed 78% of licensees, many of them desperate to save their ailing businesses, were demanding the smoking ban be amended to allow separate indoor smoking rooms. This was backed by an F2C survey published in the Morning Advertiser which found the figure virtually identical at 79%.

So why wasn’t more made of this? God only knows.

Instead the Publican threw its weight behind three campaigns – to fight the proposed mandatory code of practice, ‘axe the tax’ (duty and VAT cuts on pub drinks) and hike up supermarket prices, none of which stood a cat in hell’s chance of success.

Even if they’d all been won it would still make no difference to today’s unpopularity if every pub sold beer at one quid-a-pint. Customers are still abandoning the pub and we’ve been unable to stem the flow. We never will until the industry admits to the problem that dare not speak its name, that huge grinning elephant sitting in the room.

I can understand why the Publican felt compelled to ‘talk up’ the terrible state of the industry or risk its advertising revenue. But how many times were we forced to read about a few pence rise in Punch shares when they always fall back to around 60p within days as nimble investors took their profit?

Everything reported was so sugar-coated my fillings ached just reading it. One would have assumed recovery was just around the corner. It’s not. Trust me on this.

Over the last few years I’ve made many predictions in the Publican which, although mocked and derided at the time, turned out to be uncannily accurate. One of the earliest of these was the demise of The Publican itself. Let me tell you in all sincerity it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to be proved correct once more.

Simple logic really. With around 20% of our 2007 pub stock either closed down or converted for other uses the trade no longer needed two major titles. The rival Morning Advertiser had already scythed its staff to the bone some time back so was already at its fighting weight.

Hence William Reed, the MA’s parent company, was able to snap up The Publican for a paltry £1.5 million while UBM took a £19.5 million hit on the deal.

After 36 proud years the Publican was killed off by the smoking ban as surely as it will close TWO THIRDS of our nation’s pubs over the next few years.

And what of Hamish Champ, the smoke-hater’s friend? Poor Hamish now edits Plastics & Rubber Weekly, a mind-numbingly boring industrial rag based in glorious downtown Croydon. The only excitement comes on Thursday afternoons when the new paperclips arrive. A hotline to The Samaritans comes as a perk of the job.

Could things have been different? Maybe, if we’d all pulled together in the early days. But we were forced to dance to the greedy Pubco’s misguided tune, straight into the gates of financial hell.

If, as a trade, we can get our act together before the end of 2013 and, with the benefit of hindsight, win a fairer deal on the ban then a near-full recovery could be a realistic prospect.
After that it’s probably too late.

So it’s a nostalgic farewell to The Publican magazine. Let’s pray it’s not goodbye to the Great British Pub.



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11 Responses to Pete Robinson writes for Freedom2Choose

  1. Phil Johnson says:

    Hi Pete,
    As former Chairman of f2c I( can tell you this my friend. I wrote three guest blogs for the Publican, Caroline Nodder (?) was ecstatic that I had offered as my uncle ran a small village pub for 35 years. I gently brought in the smoking ban and its effect and that was he end of me writing for the Publican.
    I was told that we must ’embrace the ban’ and find new ways to ‘entice customers through the doors’. I replied, very politely, that those in power obviously hadn’t got a clue what they were doing as they had instantly leperised their best customers and that the expected influx of clean air drinkers was never going to materialise. I also pointed out that The Publican should be opposing a total ban as its own people were being slaughtered by it.
    I was simply told that ‘we must now look to the future’ and that my submissions were no longer required.
    I wrote to you several times Pete, c/o the Publican, but i guess my letters were not deemed fit to pass on, after all, they requested your recognition of freedom2choose at that time. Like you, I see very little future for the pubs in this country as we have so many blind MPs just oh so happy to ‘brown nose’ the health lobby and a CamerCleggs duo so unable to see that democracy is being swept aside that there is very little hope left-unless the licensees suddenly grow a pair and stand together! Can you see that happening Pete?
    Phil Johnson
    ex Chairman
    ex f2c

  2. brainwave711 says:

    Ah… the good ‘ol British pub – don’t you miss it? I do.
    I used to love going to the pub of an evening, especially at weekends. You couldn’t keep me out of one in fact.
    It wasn’t the drink I used to go for so much, I could have that at home if I wanted. No, it was the social interaction that being inside of one afforded.
    It was the conversations one would get involved in, deep or trivial.
    The good-humoured banter with friends and strangers alike.
    The games.. pool, darts, skittles, etc, and the quizzes that would occasionally happen.
    It was the distinct atmosphere of the comfortable British pub that drew me in there, on a regular basis. The friendly staff, a warm cosy fire with the old boy in his flat cap sitting in front of it (in his designated seat) puffing on his aromatic pipe as his old dog lay asleep in front of its warm glow. That sort of thing.
    It was somewhere you could be that was homely, without being at home.
    …and then came the ban.
    Since then, you can’t keep me in one. At least twice now during the course of drinking my pint I am forced to go outside (no matter what the weather or temperature) in order to partake of the cigarette that is an integral and indispensable part of my enjoyment of the drink. No more can I just sit there and relax and soak in the atmosphere… no more can I get involved in a game without having to abandon it more than once in order go and stand outside for the 4 or 5 minutes it takes to smoke a cigarette. No more can I enjoy the visual and sensory pleasure of watching the old boy smoke his pipe.. in short.. no more can I enjoy the pub.
    My friends, and other regulars of the pub, most of whom smoked, were also subjected to the same enforced inconveniences as myself of course, and it didn’t take very long for their attendances in the said establishment to peter out… and with them went the atmosphere that their presence created.
    Almost overnight, or certainly over a season, a place that was so packed out on the last 3 nights of the week to a point where at times it was difficult to hear oneself think turned into a place where, on those same 3 nights, one could have heard a pin drop had the floor not been carpeted. It didn’t take me long to follow suit. After all, if I’m going to drink alone then I might as well do it at home (was my thinking) where I can at least smoke indoors …for now!
    The sad thing is that it’s not just the pub that’s being killed off by this Ban.. A British tradition is also being killed off. Even the anti-smokers, who originally screamed and whinged about their right to drink in a smoke-free establishment, no longer go in the numbers they did.. because when they threw out the smokers, as I’ve said, they also threw out the thing that makes a pub what it is.. the customers.
    The only way to save the pub is to amend the ban so that there is provision made for the smoker.

  3. Rose says:

    I think that they may have been scared out of business.

    ASH Political Bulletin 2004 Page7
    Letter to the Publican

    Managing Director of The Massive Pub Company

    “The only ultimate provision and safety for us will be a smoking ban.
    We all need to be forwarned that the next growth area for the legal system will be prosecutions of publicans for not protecting staff from the dangers of ETS.Since April 27 cases have been taken on – this is the start of a tidal wave – in my view.

    The industry, through the various trade bodies is looking for a voluntary ban with 80% of premises having smoke free areas by 2007.
    Having attended the conference I am of the clear view that far too many of us could be fighting legal battles by then, and perhaps we will be preferring a total national ban.

    We need to take a very close look at what is happening elsewhere and learn from their experiences.The clearest message from this conference is that on health and legal grounds a ban is an absolute must and an absolute certainty.
    That frightens us and requires us to change will, ultimately, be irrelevant.

    I would strongly recommend that every trade body and industry representative invites some of the speakers from this conference, or workshop.
    At least that way acknowledge of the dangers of ETS and to our livelihoods and businesses will be more widely available.”

    Page 7

    Thompson’s Solicitors Smoking Workplace Hotline

    “Since the last political bulletin, ASH and Thompsons have launched their new hotline through a leaflet called “secondhand smoker?”
    It is aimed at people who don’t smoke themselves but are suffering from ill health due to exposure from tobacco smoke pollution at work.
    Thompsons and ASH have been very pleased at the response so far.”

    Click to access ASH_405.pdf

    Smoking conference urges change

    Trade publication the Publican is feeling decidedly bruised and sorry for itself as, a result of a smoking in the workplace conference organised by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP).

    The Publican claims that the conference, whose purpose was to discuss the impact of passive smoking on employees in pubs and bars, turned into “an assault on the hospitality industry”.

    The Publican also drew attention to how few representatives from the trade were present – eight compared to over 100 from the medical profession and local authorities. Licking its wounds the Publican reported that the conference only provided one slot for a trade speaker, Peter Linacre, Managing Director of massive Pubs.”

    “However, in response President of the RCP Professor Carole Black said “Making these pubs and bars smoke-free not only protects vulnerable staff and the public, it will help more people stop smoking.”

    ASH and Thompsons’ Tell Employers: Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned Over Secondhand Smoke
    Monday 12 January 2004

    “The hospitality trade faces a rising threat of legal action from employees whose health is damaged by secondhand smoke, after a new tie-up between health campaigning charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and the UK’s largest personal injury and trade union law firm Thompsons was announced today.

    ASH has sent a registered letter to all the UK’s leading hospitality trade employers, warning them that the “date of guilty knowledge” under the Health and Safety at Work Act is now past, and that employers should therefore know of the risks of exposing their staff to secondhand smoke. Employers who continue to permit smoking in the workplace are therefore likely to be held liable by the courts for any health damage caused. ASH and Thompsons intend to use the letters in any future court cases as evidence that employers have been fully informed of the issue.

    ASH and Thompsons are also planning further steps to encourage employees who believe their health has been harmed by smoking in the workplace to seek legal advice on making a claim for compensation. These will be announced shortly.”

    A pretty impressive bluff over nothing that non-smokers don’t willingly consume every day.


    “Many plants of the Solanaceae family, which includes the genus Nicotiana, of which the tobacco plant is a member, contain solanesol; particularly those that contain trace amounts of nicotine.
    These include the tomato, eggplant, potato, and pepper.

    The potential interference due to these sources is negligible, cooking being the only likely potential source of interference. An interference of this type would bias results high, overestimating the contribution of ETS to RSP.

    Click to access CRM_52.pdf

    The result.

    Analysis Reveals that Institute of Medicine Report Failed to Include Data that Found No Effect of Smoking Bans on Acute Coronary Events in 3 Countries

    “I have analyzed the data which the Institute of Medicine included and failed to include in its report and today, I reveal that the report failed to consider data from three countries (England, Scotland, and Wales) which seem to clearly show that the smoking bans in these countries had no significant short-term effect on acute coronary events.

    These data are all national data which include all hospital admissions at all hospitals in these countries. Thus, they represent a better source of data than what was used in some of the published studies (which only included a sample of hospitals).
    Moreover, they cover large populations, with a sample size greater than that of all other studies combined.

    Thus, the data from these countries are critically important an carries much weight in the overall analysis.”

    No wonder it was left out.

    So I do have sympathy for the pub industry, they were done over by experts.
    If a government wants to experiment on the public, they should at least pay compensation for the damage.

  4. junican says:

    I have seen comments in papers where publicans have complained about customers blaming them for the smoking ban. The reality is that it is true. The first sign of the persecution was the proposed swingeing fines for publicans who ‘allowed’ smoking. That should have been a red rag to a bull on the grounds that, a) if a person lights up, that person just does so – there is no question of ‘allowing’; b) that the proposed fines were way, way out of all proportion to any conceivable ‘harm’ or ‘offence’.

    Why were publicans so unutterably stupid, when the realised what was proposed, as not to see the reality of what was happening? WHY DID THEY NOT CREATE MERRY HELL BETWEEN THE PASSING OF THE LAW AND THE IMPLEMENTATION? The promises of ASH ET AL were utterly worthless and obviously so to anyone with a single brain cell. Damn it! How can a ‘magnificent edifice’, with all the attendant costs, compete with a little lock-up restaurant/bar? They can do so only by numbers, but the competition is so intense that, the more pubs that try to ‘do food’, the more they themselves increase the competition!

    The whole deception from ASH ET AL was obvious from the beginning, as any intelligent person could see with the greatest of ease. Did people who went to bingo halls do so for the excellent restaurant food? Hell’s bells!

    I rest my case.

  5. nisakiman says:

    “In truth the customers we’ve lost don’t want excellence. Most pubgoers couldn’t give a toss about fine dining, health emporiums, creches, drop-in centres or gymnasiums. They simply want to be treated like adults. They want their old pubs back, warts an’ all.”

    That is it in a nutshell.

    But as Rose points out, the industry was well and truly shafted by organisations with limitless funds and limitless influence in the government and media. They were threatened with the stick of legal claims over SHS (which had they come to court, were by no means guaranteed to succeed, given the dodgy nature of the epidemiology), and tempted with the carrot of the promised droves of non-smoking customers who would flock to the newly smoke-free pubs.

    The pub trade should have known better. Drinking and smoking have gone hand-in-hand since pubs as we know them have been in existence. They capitulated far too easily. They should have seen the writing on the wall after Wetherspoons went smoke-free before the ban, and saw their trade evaporate. So much for non-smokers flocking to smoke-free pubs.

  6. Greg Burrows says:

    Thank you Pete for reminding us of your forsight and common sense, I am know going to put my tuppence in.
    Smoking SHS,ETS has always been exempt from the HSE’s (Health & safety Executive) health and safety at work act.
    As there was a social engineering program by the then labour government to introduce a full ban (which Patricia Hewitt stated was the intention in hansard in 2002) the simple remedy with out deceit would have been to include smoking SHS,ETS in the HSE’s health and safety at work act, which would have negated any threat of legal action, due to the HSE monitoring exposure of SHS,ETS.
    The problem with this for the government was that the HSE could not produce bona-fide significant epidemiological evidence from all the worldwide studies undertaken that SHS,ETS was significantly harmful (see HSE article 9 of OC255/15) so it would have been impossible to bring a ban in under health grounds, hence the only way to bring in the ban (without proof of harm) was the Health act 2006 chapter 28.
    The Conservative and the Liberals have not exposed this travesty of deceit, and so are as guilty as the Labour government, the only party to have exposed the truth are UKIP (United Kingdom Independence party) Hence my support for Nigel Farage and UKIP by standing for them at council elections and general elections.
    The whole affair still brings a sour taste to my mouth of how corrupt deeds have infiltrated the lib,lab,cons supposedly for the good of our health, the same scenario is now being brought forward on alcohol.

  7. Greg Burrows says:

    O and here is a good read on how the EU and WHO convention’s which Briton is signed to were an instrumental force for our smoking ban, they can do this with alcohol or anything they deem is not good for us.

  8. Pingback: We Want Our Old Pubs Back | Frank Davis

  9. Whatever became of Phil W?

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