1995 Smoking ban in ACT restaurants

The ACT Government was the first in Australia to ban smoking in restaurants

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was the first state or territory government in Australia to introduce a total smoking ban for restaurants. The ban came into effect on 6 December 1995. For the previous 12 months, restaurants had been obliged to allocate 50 per cent of their floor space to a non-smoking area. The indoor smoking ban led to more outdoor dining, despite Canberra’s often-chilly weather. Then, in 2010, the ban was extended to outdoor eating areas.

For years, a smoking ban in restaurants had been a hot topic. The idea was mooted as early as 1950 at an annual conference of health inspectors who very sensibly felt that, if smoking was banned where food was prepared, it should also be banned where it was eaten. Mr G. C. Campbell, an inspector from Camberwell, said that “…it is not fair that non-smokers should have to put up with people at the table blowing smoke on food, rolling cigarettes and dropping tobacco on the floor”. Even here there was a dissenting voice, with one speaker concerned that it would take away people’s liberties.

A smoking ban at that time would have been very ambitious. At the end of World War II, 72 per cent of Australian men and 26 per cent of Australian women were smokers. In the mid-1960s, those figures were 58 per cent and 28 per cent respectively. In 1976, 43 per cent of Australian men and 33 per cent of women smoked.  Every conference room and office was equipped with ashtrays and people happily puffed away during meetings. Smoking in restaurants was normal. Non-smokers just had to put up with the wafting aroma of cigarettes combining with the flavours of their meals.

This situation continued throughout the 1980s. Some restaurants did put minor restrictions on smokers. “Please, no pipes or cigars until after 10 pm” read a note on the menu at Melbourne’s Fleurie in 1986. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the percentage of smokers really began to fall, as anti-smoking campaigns highlighted the health risks.

Toward the end of the 1970s, the idea of a smoking ban in restaurants emerged again. In 1979 the Local Government Association of New South Wales lodged a submission with the state government recommending it legislate against smoking in restaurants and “enclosed spaces of public assembly”. The Sydney Sun-Herald ran an article under the headline “NSW Puffers are going up in smoke” but related that they could not find any non-smoking restaurants. “Most restaurant owners were not enthusiastic about the idea of banning smoking and felt it would be impossible to police,” they said.

It was the late 1980s before the issue again received serious attention. In 1987, the Australian Anti-Cancer Council, in conjunction with The Age Good Food Guide, conducted a survey of nearly 400 Victorian restaurants. Of the 254 that replied, 24 per cent said they had separate areas for smokers and 36 per cent said they would do their best to segregate smokers and non-smokers if asked. According to the article:

None of the restaurants surveyed ban smoking altogether, but the owners of one of Melbourne’s finest BYO restaurants, Tansy’s, said they asked patrons not to smoke between 7 and 10.30 pm. Several restaurants ban pipes and cigars, or ask they not be lit after 10.30 pm or 11 pm. Some restaurants try to discourage smoking by not putting ash trays on tables unless asked or until someone lights up.

Many of the restaurants surveyed said they would like the state government to legislate against smoking in restaurants, removing the onus on the individual establishments.

While state governments were reluctant to legislate to ban smoking in restaurants, some local councils took the initiative. The first was Newcastle City Council, which instituted a ban in February 1989. The same year, Sydney City Council proposed a similar ban and were promptly threatened with legal action by the cigarette company Phillip Morris.

Over the next ten years, various surveys were conducted by media and government entities, all showing a strong preference by the public for non-smoking restaurants. The need for a ban was contested by the cigarette companies and by the Australian Hotels Association and the issue remained hotly debated through the 1990s.

The ACT legislation to ban smoking in restaurants and other public places was followed by similar laws in Tasmania (1997), New South Wales (2000), Victoria (2001), Queensland (2002), Northern Territory (2003), South Australia (2004) and Western Australia (2006). In the following decade, regulations and laws in all states have further restricted the areas where it’s permissible to smoke.

Smoking in the outdoor areas of restaurants was permitted in most jurisdictions until the mid-2000s. Today different states have different laws governing these areas and the provision of designated smoking zones.

In New South Wales, in 2013, the Parramatta Council overturned a smoking ban for outdoor eating places after pressure from local traders. However, statewide legislation in 2015 brought the area into line, to the dismay of proprietors of the area’s “sisha” restaurants.

In Victoria, an area is not considered an outdoor dining area if only drinks and/or snacks are served in that area.  The term ‘snacks’ is defined as pre-packaged, shelf-stable foods and fruit (provided the fruit has not been cut up prior to serving). However, the area is not defined as “outdoor” if it has a roof and walls where “the total area of the wall surface exceeds 75% of the notional wall area.” Whatever that means.

As of 2016, only 16 per cent of Australian men and 12 per cent of women smoked. And thanks to the laws against smoking in restaurants we can all enjoy a dining experience where the only aromas are those rising from the plate in front of you.

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