A lone Galway pub has thrown down the gauntlet to the Irish government over its three-month-old ban on workplace smoking -- by inviting customers to rebel and light up.
"We're taking a stand," declared Ciaran Levanzin, co-owner of the Fibber Magee's pub in the central Eyre Square of Galway, where ashtrays returned to tables on Tuesday and customers were encouraged to puff away.
It marked the first deliberate effort by any of Ireland's more than 10,000 pubs to defy the ban. The measure has been almost universally observed -- and, in a country where 70 percent of adults do not smoke, broadly popular -- since its introduction on March 29.
However, Fibber Magee's rebellion proved hugely popular in Galway, a bustling university city famed for its night life.
RTE, Ireland's state broadcaster, reported live outside the pub on Tuesday night that the place was "absolutely crammed with drinkers and smokers," after which a huge roar of approval could be heard from the crowd inside watching the news.
Levanzin said he had already been obliged to lay off one-third of his workers since the ban came into force. He said more than half of the pub's previous customers had been smokers.
"Why do this? Because we're going out of business. We might as well go out with a puff of smoke," he said.
Health Minister Michael Martin led the push for the ban, arguing that anybody employed in enclosed workplaces should not be exposed to cancer-causing smoke. The move -- the first by any nation -- was modeled on similar measures imposed in California, New York and more than a dozen other US cities.
Inspectors from the government-appointed Western Health Board stopped by Fibber Magee's and warned the pub's other co-owner, Ronan Lawless, that they could face a US$3,700 fine and, eventually, the loss of their liquor license.
But Lawless said such punishment, if it comes to that, wouldn't matter.
"With the smoking ban, our business was going down the tubes anyway. We've no option but to invite our smoking customers back and see what happens," he said.
The Vintners Federation of Ireland, which represents more than 6,000 pub owners, said on Tuesday that business nationwide had fallen by 15 percent to 25 percent since the ban and predicted worse would come.
"Many small, rural, family-owned pubs have been hit particularly hard since the introduction of the ban and have serious concerns for their livelihoods and the future of their staff," said federation president Seamus O'Donoghue, who also runs a pub in the midlands market town of Portlaoise.
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