Fears that the pub trade could face a complete ban on smoking and possible legal action by staff resurfaced this month when an Australian barmaid was awarded £170,000 damages for the effects of passive smoking.
Marlene Sharp gave up her 11-year job as a barmaid in an Australian drinking club after she developed cancer of the larynx and was no longer able to work.
A spokeswoman for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said that this case had huge implications for the British pub trade.
"The trade needs to prove now that it is implementing the voluntary charter on smoking and setting up no-smoking areas, otherwise there will be mounting pressure on the Government to act," she said.
"We feel strongly that employers need to protect their staff against passive smoking."
On the back of this high-profile case, trade leaders have been stepping up calls for licensees to implement the trade's voluntary Public Places Charter in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the Government from bringing in legislation banning or restricting smoking in pubs - a move that estimates suggest could lead to pubs losing up to half of their regular trade.
The easy-to-implement charter recommends that publicans firstly put up signage so that customers are aware of the smoking policy in the outlet, whether it is smoking throughout or completely no-smoking. It also advises the use of ventilation and no-smoking areas where possible to help remove smoke.
Nick Bish, chairman of the Charter Group which has been set up to promote the initiative, said: "Anything like this raises the importance of the issue and all employers should protect their staff and customers by implementing the voluntary code on smoking. You do not have to spend any money on equipment or change your smoking policy to comply."
The Charter Group is due to undertake a national survey this summer to assess exactly how many publicans are enforcing the Public Places Charter.
The group will approach pub companies and ask them if they comply with the charter and if so which policy they have chosen. There are five categories of smoking policy - smoking throughout, separate no-smoking areas, no smoking, smoking throughout with ventilation and separate areas with ventilation.
At the last informal count in January around 10 per cent of the nation's 60,000 pubs had signed up to the scheme.
But it is accepted that half of all pubs in the country need to have implemented the scheme in order for the Government to agree that the trade can self-regulate without the need for legislation.
When the pub trade launched the charter in 1998 with the Department of Health it was on the understanding that 50 per cent of outlets would be compliant by next year.
Failure to reach this target is likely to mean further regulation, possibly in the form of the Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) already put forward by the Health and Safety Executive. Ministers have so far left this on the back-burner in view of the trade's promises to self-regulate but if it is brought in it will have the weight of law and will mean tougher regulation, including a complete ban on smoking at the bar.
On top of this, it is also understood that councils in London, Birmingham and Manchester are considering introducing a complete smoking ban in pubs and restaurants as one option to tackle passive smoking.
Although a spokesman for the Local Government Association told The Publican Newspaper that this would be very difficult to achieve without severe opposition from the industry, the councils confirmed it is nevertheless one of the options on the table.
Chairman of the Guild of Master Victuallers and licensee of the White Horse, London, John Bristow, said that pubs should implement the voluntary charter, but added that people should think about the consequences of working in a smoky environment before applying for a bar job.
"If employers comply with this voluntary code then that should be enough," Mr Bristow said. "But I do think that people should think about whether they want to work in a smoky environment before they go for a job in a bar."
On a more positive note, signs that pub companies are now recognising the need to improve standards and are implementing the voluntary charter are becoming more apparent.
Bass is in the midst of rolling out the charter in all 2,000 of its sites across the country and at many of its outlets it also operates a policy whereby customers are not allowed to smoke at the bar.
Bass Leisure Retail communications director Bob Cartwright said: "It is important that the trade acts now to protect both staff and customers from the effects of passive smoking.
"This demonstrates the important role that the Public Places Charter is playing in terms of trying to improve standards in pubs and informing customers of the smoking policy in pubs and bars."
He added that the charter had so far proved popular."It has two main advantages," said Mr Cartwright. "The first is that barstaff and customers are not exposed to smoke as much and the second is that it clears up the bar area enabling customers to be served much more quickly."
The trade will have to wait until the summer before it is clear if Government targets have been met and in the meantime licensees are being urged to act now to become charter compliant before it is too late.
Facts and figures:
- according to The Publican Newspaper Market Report 2000 pubs would lose an average 43 per cent of their business if a complete ban on smoking was introduced
- one in four publicans were worried by the possibility of employees taking out legal action because of the effects of passive smoking
- 56 per cent of all publicans were either only slightly worried by the possibility of court action or not at all.