While the damage done by the smoking ban is often portrayed as economic damage to pubs and clubs and cafes, it seems to me that the real damage is far greater than this, and almost entirely invisible. And this is the damage that is done to the social cohesion of society.
When a pub or a club closes, the community that sustained it also dies. In fact, if a pub closes, it’s generally because the pub community has become moribund, and the closure of the pub is a consequence of this, rather than a cause of it. And when a community dies, most of the connections between the members of that community will also die. In fact, a community is really nothing but the sum of the connections between its individual members.
It’s possible to think about this mathematically. If you have a pub in which there are 50 regulars, who are all friends with each other, how many friendships or other social connections are there in total? The answer is that in a society with N members there will be N times (N-1) divided by 2 connections between them all. So if there are 50 regulars, there will be a total of 1225 marriages or friendships or acquaintanceships. But because there are two people in each relationship, each with a tie to the other, there will be a total of 2450 personal ties between them.
There are in Britain about 60,000 pubs. If each pub has 100 regulars, some of whom come in every day, and some only once a week or once a month, and all of whom know each other, then each each pub community will comprise 9900 personal ties. And 60,000 pubs will total 594 million ties.
If, as a result of the smoking ban, 10% fewer regulars continue to go to their pub, so that each pub now has 90 regulars instead of 100, the number of ties in each pub community will now be 8010, a fall of 1890 ties. Which makes for 113 million broken ties across all the pubs in Britain, or 20% of all the ties. A 10% fall in the number of regulars results in a 20% loss of community. Each departing regular pubgoer loses 99 ties, and each remaining regular pubgoer loses 10 ties. Assuming symmetrical tie strengths, this means that departing pubgoers feel the loss of their pub community 10 times more strongly than the remaining pubgoers feel the loss of them.
But the damage is even wider. Not all pubgoers are regulars. It seems plausible to suppose that as many pubgoers again are outsiders who aren’t part of the pub community. For example, I used to meet up with friends at pubs that happened to be nearby. If each one of these outsiders is part of a wider 100-strong community, then if 10% of these stop going to pubs and meeting up with friends, then another 113 million ties get broken. Which makes for a total of 226 million broken ties. Given a UK population of 60 million, that’s an average of everybody in Britain having 4 fewer people they know. Except that the losses are sustained almost entirely among the frequenters of pubs and clubs and cafes, and with the heaviest losses falling on the smokers.
These are ball-park figures. I don’t know how many regulars pubs have on average. In tiny little rural pubs it might only be 20 or 30 people. In big warehouse city pubs it might be 10 times that number, and not everybody will know everybody else. And I’ve not thought about how social ties get weakened when people meet less often. In a pub community with 100 members, if 10 of them stop going to the pub, it’s quite likely that 20 or 30 will go less often, weakening the strength of their ties with other pubgoers. I’ve not tried to factor in ‘strength of tie’ like it was tension in an elastic string. The main thing that seems to come out of this very simple mathematical approach is that the loss of community (the ties that bind people together) is greater than the loss of customers, and that a 10% drop in regular pub customers means a 20% loss of pub community.
It’s a lose-lose situation for everybody. In total, non-smoking pub regulars lose as many ties of friendship as the departed smokers. Everybody knows rather fewer people than they did before. Non-smokers notice it least, and smokers notice it most. But society as a whole is less cohesive than it was before. It is tied together less tightly.
Non-smoking pubgoers hardly notice, except to see that the pubs are a bit emptier (and in many cases a lot emptier) than they used to be. It’s not smoky, and they get served at the bar quicker. Non-pubgoers don’t notice it at all.
Most smokers are working class these days. The middle classes gave up smoking years ago. And many of them never go to pubs anyway. And since these are the people who run the media – TV and radio and newspapers – they’ve either not noticed the loss of community themselves, or noticed it only slightly. And so it’s not news. The media keep their eyes peeled for localised disasters, like floods in Yorkshire, or earthquakes in Haiti. They’re not tuned to pick up lots of tiny little disasters happening everywhere.
Or else they send reporters down to the pubs the day after the smoking ban goes into force to ask the customers what they feel about it, and all the customers say that it’s great – because they’re all non-smokers. The smokers outside and at home don’t get interviewed because they’re no longer there for the cameras. And the non-smokers inside haven’t yet noticed the loss of the smokers. A false positive snapshot of the smoking ban emerges: it’s a great success.
And so the media don’t report on the divisive social effects of the smoking ban. And because the media don’t report on it, the politicians don’t notice it either. And because the politicians don’t notice it, party leaders like David Cameron will give speeches about Our Broken Society (like he did today) which completely ignore a comprehensive and widespread social fracture that’s going on right under his nose.
One day they all start to catch up. Just not yet, it seems.