As we approach the first anniversary of the smoking ban in Irish pubs, John Brophy takes a look at how some premises have set about catering for their smoking customers.

For the past year in Ireland you can't mention pubs without also talking about the smoking ban. Informed trade sources say that when you extract all the variables, the net effect of the ban has resulted in a drop of about 5% to 6% in on-trade sales.

Among the general population one person in four is a smoker - and women smokers now outnumber men. But among the pub-going population the proportion is reckoned to be much higher so publicans continue to have to look for viable alternatives in catering for smokers.

According to Office of Tobacco Control, there have been 14 prosecutions since the ban came into effect on March 29th last. There may be others pending.

At the time the ban was introduced the trade was moving into the spring and summer. Everyone looked to the winter as being the acid test, the time that would really sort out how publicans would fare under the ban. The actual terms of the ban are included in the Public Health (Tobacco) (Amendment) Act 2004 which changed the Public Health (Tobacco) Act, 2002.

The areas where smoking is permitted were defined as "a place or premises, or a part of a place or premises, that is wholly uncovered by any roof, whether fixed or movable"; or "an outdoor part of a place or premises covered by a fixed or movable roof provided that no more than 50% of the perimeter of that part is surrounded by one or more walls or similar structures (inclusive of windows, doors, gates or other means of access to or egress from that part)".

The new legislation raised maximum financial penalties from €1,900 to €3,000. Heavy restrictions on tobacco advertising and sponsorship were confirmed.

So, as we approach the first anniversary of the smoking ban in pubs, we thought it would be an interesting exercise to take a look at some of the more striking examples of how pubs have catered for their smokers. We decided to make enquiries in the greater Dublin area. With space at such a premium in Dublin, it's hardly surprising that there are many more landlocked pubs in the city than might be the case elsewhere.

Where a premises enjoys some extra space or a car-park, one can do much more. At Taylor's 3 Rock in the shadow the Three Rock Mountain in South Dublin, a large verandah/terrace out front by the car park offers a view of Dublin city above the parking line. For smokers, a heavy fabric blind has been installed over the outdoor seating there, making a one-piece roof and wall offering as much shelter as any regular marquee.

But there can be more to outdoor smoking areas than conviviality - especially on match days. The Fox's Covert in Tallaght, flagship of the Molloy Group, has adopted a more radical solution. An extension built like a handball alley or squash court has side walls sloping down towards the gutter on the main building. It also features a large-screen TV, sheltered by a small permanent awning. The space can take at least 10 pavement-style chrome tables. While no roof exists, some cover can be provided by large striped sun-blinds arranged to spill any rain-water into the existing gutters.

The area has patio-style umbrellas and wall-mounted infra-red heaters. The Covert's customers display a great spirit of camaraderie and defiance. They appreciate the efforts being made on their behalf even though they did describe conditions as "bleedin' freezin'". Nor need all smoking areas be ground floor affairs.

In Drimnagh, the landmark Halfway House sits on a triangular site bounded by Walkinstown Road and the Long Mile Road. Owner Gerry O'Malley (who hails from West Limerick) explains, "Our timing was perfect". The pub was undergoing a €2.5m refit - and it managed to stay open all the time. News of the smoking ban came in the middle of the work, so architect Frank Ennis decided to hive off part of the upstairs lounge and make it into a smoking area. A small overhang protects a few wooden tables - garden furniture style, but the circular area is unroofed.

It includes a raised and railed seating area and the place is decorated with antique enamelled advertising plaques, all related to tobacco, giving the feel of an old railway station. From the outside, there's nothing to indicate that the smoking area exists. Gerry has retained a traditional bar with terrazzo flooring and he's proud of his large draught Guinness sales volume. Success depends on knowing your customers, he says. "A bar customer won't mind too much dropping outside the door for a smoke, but for a lounge customer, that's demeaning."

From a business perspective it helps if customers pass through a normal lounge area on the way to the door or the toilets, he adds, the psychology being that smokers don't want to feel any more unloved and excluded than they are already. Another strategy: as customers leave, they pass through the dining area at The Halfway House which features a Thai-based menu with specials for children. Gerry acknowledges the support of his wife, Ann, in developing this area.

On the other side of Dublin Bay, the Dollymount House near the Bull Island (famed for its 5kph speed limit) constitutes a large property with a view of the port and the mountains. Obviously this was once a spacious house with a big garden to match. The garden has now been built over for the most part as a large lounge and kitchen.

In the middle of this lounge a cabin-style conservatory has been installed with an open roof, tiled floor and patio furniture with heaters. There are timber doors with glass panels and wide timber supports for the windows. And like the Halfway House, it ensures that slaves to the weed cannot leave the premises without rejoining the rest of humanity and being tempted to stay on a while.

But even where there isn't any surrounding space, a solution can be found and even for landlocked pubs, there can be alternatives. In Ranelagh, Birchall's, a traditional pub sits on a corner location. Like many such pubs, it has a back entrance to the lounge, accessed through a passageway, normally used for deliveries.

It was a simple matter to put some corrugated clear Perspex over part (but not all) of the passageway. This means that smokers can comply with the law and since there is a door between the passageway and the street, smokers have some privacy.

Across the other side of the country, at the Blue Lagoon in Riverside, Sligo, Peter Henry has been pulling pints for the past 50 years and he celebrates 46 years in business on 1st May. He installed an outdoor smoking area replete with a roller awning courtesy of Awnings Direct/Winsol which opens and closes at the touch of a button indoors and it also contains a windbreaker. "We've flagged along the entrance and the smoking area is by the side of the building," he says, "The awnings have been a great help to our public bar. Without it, we'd have been in awful trouble.

"We have a nightclub, a public bar and an old-fashioned lounge. Our trade in the public bar has held up as a result of the smoking area but our sales in the Tudor Room lounge would be down about €2,000 per week. That's the age bracket who're staying at home. It has been a disaster with people coming in and out during the music sessions. The nightclub, on the other hand, has held up as we have space out the back".

Peter reckons that an outside smoking area is a great idea of you have the space, pointing to other businesses with no outside space which have suffered drops in business of up to 50%. Lastly, in the village of Clonee, just over the border in Co. Meath, the Grasshopper Inn has been run by Martin Regan for the past seven years.

The village has changed greatly since 1998 when the census return showed 26 residents and five pubs. The Grasshopper has a large smoking terrace at the front and another one at the side. The side also features a series of louvre-style French windows which can be opened in summer. Obviously, smokers can't go inside but, says Martin, it creates a feeling of continuity between inside and outside so that the smokers don't feel as excluded.

Martin prefers gas to infra-red heaters. "If there's a wind blowing all your heat away, the gas will restore temperature faster," he says. And he has access to natural gas from the mains.

Martin is also of the opinion that the smoking ban has been over-hyped. As he sees it, it was the Special Savings schemes which took a lot of spending power out of the market. Many of these schemes are due to mature within the next 18 months and that should get things back on an even keel.

All that remains is for the publican to fill these attractive spaces to previous levels. As one barman observed of the potential for an outdoor lifestyle in our pubs today, "From our point-of-view, it's wonderful - but we need customers as well".

One year on from the introduction of the smoking ban, most of the country's licensed premises may have put a plan in place to cater for smokers - but have they made them attractive to smokers?

This article first appeared in Drinks Industry Ireland magazine, read by those responsible for retailing more than 80% of product in the Irish pub, hotel, nightclub and off-licence industries. For more information contact drinksinireland@indigo.ie