The end of pub smoking in Australia: a tribute to Frank Sartor


Smokefree dining once signalled drab mung bean and tofu asceticism. In the early 1990s health groups took a dozen of Sydney’s leading food writers to lunch at the smokefree Tetsuya’s to try and turn that perception around. Leo Schofield, David Dale and John Newton pioneered the highlighting of smoking status in restaurant reviews. The ACT government made restaurants smokeless in 1995 and in November 1999, NSW Premier Bob Carr announced that all restaurants (including the humblest kebab shop) would be smokefree – commencing six weeks before the 2000 Olympics. The dominoes then tumbled in every state, including the Northern Territory with no reports of the world having ended.

But pubs and club bars were said to be different. Romanticised as the last bastions of smoking, their representatives stood their ground, brandishing a heady mix of economic snake oil and talk about returned soldiers who’d fought for the right to smoke, drink and eat a pie. Studies of the greatly elevated blood nicotine levels of bar staff came and went, as did stratospheric measures of toxic tobacco smoke particles in pub air. All namby-pamby nonsense to pub industry officials. Reports of the improved respiratory health of Californian bar staff after that state banned smoking in bars in 1998 changed nothing. When non-smoking Port Kembla bar worker Marlene Sharp was awarded $466 000 in damages for her throat cancer in 2001, predictions of rising workers’ compensation insurance premiums failed to materialize.

In 1997 the NSW government was handed a graded set of options for banning smoking throughout the hospitality industry, starting with a do nothing option. It did nothing. It later resurrected the immortal ‘magic line’ system of controlling smoke in pubs once favoured on planes. Currently you can’t smoke ‘at’ a bar, so smoking within two metres of a bar is deemed harmful to bar staff. But at 2.01 metres they can breath easy. It was clear something was very wrong here.

While all other workers breathed smokefree air, the group most exposed and at risk of disease were the last to be protected – told to risk their health as a sort of patriotic duty to the economy. The club and hotel industries fed governments and an often unblinking media a diet of empty bars and cataclysmic job losses if smoking were to go. That non-smokers outnumber smokers by four to one and that many might go to pubs more if they could come away without a dry cleaning bill and stinging eyes meant nothing to the pub industry. Bar workers are a highly casual and largely non-unionised, powerless workforce. Being predominantly young, many smoke themselves. ‘They didn’t have to work there’, ran the unvoiced neo-Dickensian subtext.

John Farmer, The Mercury, Hobart

John Farmer, The Mercury, Hobart

Enter Frank Sartor. Few politicians get thrown in the deep end of politics and given a ministry and seat in cabinet on their first week in parliament. Sartor broke the mould and was entrusted to pursue a personal crusade he had long been lobbying the Carr government to fund: a ministry unique in the world that would be dedicated to doing all that was possible to reduce the burden of cancer in the community. Like so many, the former Sydney Olympics Lord Mayor has deeply personal experience with cancer. His mother died of melanoma when he was sixteen and his partner, former ballerina Hephzibah Tintner, died of throat cancer aged just thirty.

Everyone who meets Sartor or receives one of his expletive laden fifty minute late evening phone monologues knows immediately that he is personally driven. He seems to know this himself, quoting the late Christopher Reeve in his maiden speech to parliament, ‘I often wonder why it takes a direct emotional connection for our elected officials and prominent members of society before they are willing to help us.’

Sartor takes to a brief like a hungry dog cleans a bone. Any question elicits a Niagara of statistics, which are invariably correct. He has rapidly acquired a reputation among health professionals as being among the most informed politicians to have dealt with health issues. Famously described as ‘an acquired taste’ he can be impatient, irritable, stubborn, and makes enemies. But if you want someone on your side, he is a peerless operator.

Sartor quickly assessed that interstate unity would be critical in securing the pub endgame and visited the Victorian health minister in Victoria and the health minister’s advisors in Queensland to seed the idea. He found strong allies in Victoria’s Health Minister Bronwyn Pike and Queensland’s Gordon Nuttall. For some time Carr and others had been saying a total ban was inevitable and this begged the question of who would be first to step up to the plate. As had happened with the restaurant ban, none of the three Eastern states liked the idea that they should be seen to be left in the wake of the others, but each were also edgy about being targeted by a club and pub campaign if they went alone.

In June last year Sartor joined Bob Carr, Peter Beattie, Mike Rann, Steve Bracks and federal minister Ian Macfarlane on a trip to the US. The agenda was all about how Australia could build biotech capacity that would be internationally competitive. Sartor used the opportunity to successfully get in the ears of the Queensland and Victorian state premiers and stitch up an agreement where the three Eastern states would wait till after the Federal election and then name a date for a pub smoking ban. In perhaps the most telling sign of how popular the issue had become, on 6 September Peter Beattie gazumped an irritated NSW and Victoria by announcing Queensland bars would be smokefree from July 2006, twelve months ahead of NSW and Victoria.

The pubs and clubs sought to position those pushing for the ban as dreary fun phobics who never went out after dark and couldn’t stand the thought of anyone enjoying themselves with a beer and cigarette. They knew nothing of real life. They saw this as a resilient caricature that, when combined with ‘pick a number and double it’ talk of pub collapses and mass sackings, would create a powerful and enduring spectre that would daunt any pragmatic cabinet minister.

The most sordid argument promoted by the pubs was that a smoking ban would gut takings including state tax income from poker machines. As a recent Tattersalls report put it ‘smoking is a powerful reinforcement for the trance-inducing rituals associated with gambling.’ Going outside to have a cigarette can interrupt that trance and smokers may ‘be tempted to go home rather than play on’. The argument required them to blithely twin the exploitation of problem gambling with the neglect of workers’ and patrons’ health. Only the most grasping Treasury mandarin could have made a public virtue of such a synergy.

Health groups saw their main hope in surfing the momentum of massive public support and positioning the pub anomaly as a political issue that demanded leadership. While the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) was intent on spraying its apocalyptic economic fantasies around, health groups ridiculed this with overseas data and admissions from internal tobacco industry documents (‘the economic arguments often used by the industry to scare off smoking ban activity … had no credibility with the public, which isn’t surprising when you consider that our dire predictions in the past rarely came true .’). They stuck to the core, touchstone issue of it being unAustralian to give all workers protection from passive smoking, except those who are most exposed. It resonated. Several on-line media opinion polls saw some of the largest voting numbers ever seen since the polls began, with typically 80 per cent supporting a ban.

An advertisement was quickly pulled together featuring prominent Australians, repudiating the AHA line that this was all simply a push from a small bunch of health zealots. Responding to political intelligence that said no one cared enough about pub smoking to make it politically compelling, the Cancer Council amassed 26 000 names who poured cards and letters into local members’ offices.

Frank Sartor convened a working group chaired by the Cabinet Office representing employers and staff in the affected industries, with Professor Jim Bishop from the Cancer Institute and some Health Department staff. The clubs’ representative was Wayne Krelle, brother of British American Tobacco Australia CEO, Gary Krelle. Sartor wanted a report on when and how a ban would be introduced, not whether it would. The group only met eight times, hearing submissions but mostly going through the motions of what the hotels and clubs always perceived as an irritation that could be fixed by playing upstairs games with their political contacts and calling in the quid pro quo of political donations. As the AHA’s John Thorpe once put it ‘democracy is not cheap’.

Joy McKean, widow of country music icon Slim Dusty, had offered her support to the NSW Cancer Council after Slim’s death from cancer. She spoke to the Committee in February. I watched their faces while she talked of the decades of smoke choked rooms they’d played in. Joy quietly begged the meeting to think of the health of younger musicians who could avoid what Slim went through. When she finished, there was pin drop silence in the room. No one would meet her eye or ask a question. Months later, when she wrote a plain speaking letter to the Sunday press about lack of action, she got a personal call from Carr the same day, explaining that it had been agreed by the three states to go quiet on the announcement until after the Federal election.

In April the AHA organized an independent consultant, Chris Salmon, to speak to the Committee. Salmon pushed the ventilation solution and when asked by Bishop, denied that he had ever worked for the tobacco industry. Bishop later tabled a raft of embarrassing internal memos from Salmon’s previous employer, Healthy Buildings International to Philip Morris showing how Salmon had channeled information from a previous Standards Australia committee to the tobacco giant. Bishop successfully moved that Salmon’s submission be discarded.

Most of Europe has looked askance at what’s seen as the rampant Calvinism underscoring Scandinavian nations’ tough stance on smoking. Predictably, when Norway announced it would ban smoking in bars most of Europe yawned at the irrelevancy. But when Ireland announced they were joining in and went ahead in March 2004, the damn burst. Scotland has now climbed aboard and England has put a toe in the water. Even Italy, where one could be mistaken for thinking smoking was compulsory, moved quickly to ban indoor smoking.

In the weeks before the 13 October announcement that NSW and Victoria would end smoking in pubs and clubs, the AHA stepped up its campaign. On 9 September, the NSW AHA faxed their members warning ‘If you don’t act NOW — the Aussie tradition of having a beer and a smoke will soon disappear forever … your business will be DESTROYED … your town can’t face 20 per cent job losses.’ It urged a carpet bombing fax blitz of Sartor’s office with publicans urged to tell him: ‘… how much revenue you’ve lost because of the smoking bans introduced on 1 July 2004′ (this was the heinous requirement that hotels with more than one bar needed to make one smoke free). In a touching display of newly discovered public health sensitivity, the AHA also urged reminding Sartor that bans would drive smokers back home where ‘they will smoke at home where children are present.’ This was the same AHA whose submissions to government had for years said passive smoking had not been proven to be harmful.

The AHA stated that Ireland and New York – which had banned smoking in bars in July 2003 – were disaster zones: ’61 per cent of bars in Dublin will not survive much longer … Takings are down 15 per cent — 25 per cent on liquor sales alone.’ Irish Central Statistics Office data show March-May 2004 bar sales fell 1.3 per cent from the previous quarter, but the decrease in the same period the year before was 3.4 per cent. In New York City the AHA claimed liquor sales were down ‘to 40 per cent’ and that ‘a third of bars will close within two years’ and ‘up to 27 per cent of staff have lost their jobs’. But US Bureau of Labor statistics show that employment in New York’s hospitality sector rose by 12 300 jobs in the twelve months since the ban and sales tax receipts in the sector went up 8.7 per cent.

Sartor was contemptuous of their campaign and in one memorable meeting with the AHA’s Thorpe in Sartor’s office, shouting drew people from adjoining offices to see what was going on. Losing this one would have hung a dead albatross around the neck of his historic Cancer Institute. After more than a decade of getting their own way, the hospitality industry had run into an immovable object.

From January 2006 (Tasmania), July 2006 (Queensland and Western Australia), July 2007 in NSW and Victoria, and October 2007 (South Australia) the ‘inevitable’ is finally happening. Ironically, Sartor’s incendiary initiative saw his own state agree to the second longest phase-in concessions to the industry which argued with a straight face that it would take them years to educate their customers and put signs on walls.

These delays are disappointing, and as the months progress they will seem even more absurd. But when the history of the demise of smoking is finally written, 2004 will be seen as a vintage year, and Sartor’s efforts pivotal in one of the biggest denormalising steps that will eventually see smoking become largely a thing of the past.

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