As a cigar smoker who welcomes the complete and long overdue smoking ban that will come into force in all workplaces, and therefore all restaurants, pubs and bars, in Wales on 2 April, Northern Ireland on 30 April and England on 1 July this year, I realise that I may be in a small minority.
But I believe that my reasons for this seemingly contrary position are valid. When I was a restaurateur, I, and whatever I wore, suffered the effects of secondary smoking and I also, admittedly unknowingly, subjected my staff to its damaging effects. Good food and wine unquestionably taste even better in a non-smoking environment as I have discovered in restaurants from San Francisco to Edinburgh. And the new non-smoking environments will, I believe, attract even better staff to work in restaurants.
But this new legislation will undoubtedly change how many of us enjoy restaurants as well as their physical layout. To ascertain what this impact will be I arranged to meet Simon Chase, marketing director of cigar importers Hunters & Frankau, at Boisdales near Victoria, a restaurant beloved of cigar, whisky and jazz enthusiasts. For the past 30 years he has been known as Mr Cigar by many a British restaurateur.
Before Chase arrived I was greeted by Ranald Macdonald, Boisdales expansive host. While his initial response to my question on how this ban will affect his restaurant was unprintable, he followed this up by pointing to the conservatory under which numerous diners, smokers and non-smokers, were currently enjoying their meal. We are going to have to take the roof off there so that it becomes a separate smoking area that complies with the new legislation. But because that space is between the kitchen and the restaurant we are then going to have to construct a corridor for the waiters to walk through with the food and then try somehow to accommodate all our smokers in that one particular place, Macdonald explained resignedly.
Chase then arrived and, having ordered a glass of red wine – something he had missed during his recent trip to Cuba – and two very Scottish dishes, Orkney herring with beetroot followed by haggis, explained that what Macdonald was referring to has now entered current restaurant parlance as a COSA or a Comfortable Outdoor Smoking Area.
Smiling, one of Chases perennial trademarks, he continued, This new legislation is very demanding and will clearly divide those restaurants with an outdoor area which can comply from those which are landlocked or surrounded by residential property where, however keen the restaurateur may be to provide a smoking area, they simply cannot comply with what is being referred to by restaurateurs as the 50% rule. This stipulates that 50% of the wall area of the COSA has to be left open on a permanent basis and any door, window or other fitting that can be opened or shut cannot be included in the 50%. This stipulation is strict (as are the penalties restaurateurs will face for not enforcing them) and mean, for example, that small conservatories cannot be converted into smoking rooms. To establish a COSA restaurateurs will have to invest in shelter, heating, lighting and furnishing.
I joked that Chase was now beginning to talk like a civil servant. Laughing this time, he replied that dealing with the onset of this new legislation had occupied 60% of his time over the last couple of years, a period for which eight years as a London town councillor back in the 1970s had been invaluable experience in what he described as having been very amicable dealings with the Department of Health. His personal contribution, he explained modestly, has been to ensure that the 30-40 specialist tobacco firms across the UK, shops such as Davidoff and JJ Fox in St. Jamess or Arcade in Reading (where 50% of their turnover has to come from sales of pipe tobacco, cigars and snuff) are exempt from the new legislation alongside private homes, certain care homes, prisons, research facilities and certain hotel bedrooms where the ventilation is considered adequate.
The onset of the smoking ban in Scotland a year ago has provided Chase with a very clear idea of what is to happen in the rest of the UK. Overnight we lost 60% of our restaurant customers who could obviously either not comply with the legislation or who chose not to. But what has proved remarkable is that new customers have emerged who can. Before the ban, for example, we never did any business with the One Up Bar and Grill in the Royal Exchange in Glasgow but it happens to have a significant balcony which, with the help of waterproof settees, outdoor heaters and global warming, has now built up a significant cigar business.
Overall, cigar sales in Scotland have not fallen over the past year with sales to wine merchants and specialist outlets replacing the lost restaurant customers. But as cigar smokers move outside, Chase has responded by creating the Cigar Park, a metal tray which can be attached to the wall of the outside smoking area on which smokers can leave their cigars while they go inside to buy a drink. What I wanted to ensure is that someone who leaves an expensive Cohiba outside does not come back to find it replaced with a Hamlet, he explained.
The haggis despatched, Chase pulled out of his briefcase a bulging file holding the imminent legislation that has been his companion for the past couple of years and a couple of boxes of different Cuban cigars that have never been far from his side. As a marketeer, he appreciates that the ban will have one long term consequence on sales. There is no doubt that the whole ritual of the humidor being presented to the customer in a restaurant, the cigar chosen and lit correctly by the specially trained waiter has always attracted a great deal of attention. And, without any particular input on our part, this has happily attracted new customers. But as cigar smokers head outside this ritual will disappear, sadly.
But Chase believes that Cubas cigar production is now moving to meet changing circumstances, with even the meeting room in La Corona rolling factory in Havana now declared non-smoking. Today, it is very hard to sell cigars over 6 inches in length, even those as well-known as Partagas Lusitanias or Monetcristo Churchills. Instead, the focus is on the robusto range that are around 4 inches long and which take no more than 30/35 minutes to smoke.
All this will ultimately have long term beneficial consequences for cigar smokers generally according to Chase. What I have been preaching for several years in Havana is that the best way to combat the consequences of the ban is to invest, raise the quality threshold and improve our sales mix with better, more colourful tubes for individual cigars and smaller boxes. Legislation has brought to an end the era of the cheap cigar in the office and as a result cigar enthusiasts are smoking less but better. We are living in exciting times.
Simon Chases favourite cigars:
1. H Upmann Corona Junior
2. Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill
3. Montecristo Petit Edmundo
4. Ramon Allones Specially Selected
5. Cohiba Siglo V1