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Traditional British pubs facing tough times

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  • Traditional British pubs are facing tough times, with 1,400 closing in 2007
  • Indoor smoking ban, higher taxes and cheap supermarket alcohol hurt pubs
  • About 57,000 pubs still remain in Britain despite decline in numbers
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British people love pubs -- so much, in fact, that a recent survey found that they cherish only fish and chips and the Queen more.

A combination of factors including the smoking ban, higher taxes and cheap supermarket alochol are hurting pubs.

A combination of factors including the smoking ban, higher taxes and cheap supermarket alochol are hurting pubs.

Yet this enduring icon of British culture is under threat after having flourished for hundreds of years.

Recent surveys found that more British pubs are closing than ever before -- victims of an indoor smoking ban, higher taxes and food prices, and changing times.

Tuesday marks one year since England followed Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to ban indoor smoking at pubs, restaurants and bars.

Some feared that would mark the death of the traditional British pub in all its smoky glory -- and they were quick to blame the ban when surveys found the pub numbers in sharp decline.

Those findings, released in March by the British Beer and Pub Association and CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, showed that more than 1,400 pubs closed in 2007. That's a sharp increase from 2006, when 216 pubs closed; and 2005, when just more than 100 closed down.

The advocacy groups, however, say the ban may be just one of many factors shutting pub doors. Video Watch more on the decline of British pubs »

Pub owners -- landlords, as they're called in Britain -- are turning in their leases for a variety of reasons. Some say it's hard to compete with cheap alcohol sold at supermarkets, a trend increasing amid the credit crunch. Others feel they could make more money operating as a wine bar or cafe.

Patrons say two things in particular have had an impact on the decline of pubs -- one being the smoking ban. Those who used to enjoy a smoke along with their pint now must smoke outside, and many pubs -- particularly in urban areas -- have little space or shelter on the sidewalk.

CAMRA says, however, that the effects of the smoking ban, introduced just halfway into 2007, are "not yet fully evident."

Pubgoers were also turned off by a boost to alcohol taxes.

"Rents and rates are shooting up," said Ian Lowe, a spokesman for CAMRA. "There's also things like excise duty. The chancellor kindly put another 4 pence [8 cents] on the price of a pint, and while supermarkets can probably absorb that, the pubs have to pass it on [to the customer]."

Pubs are also passing higher food prices on to the customer, denting a plan by many proprietors to fall back on the menus to boost business.

About 57,000 pubs remain in Britain, and while they may be under threat, they're not going away any time soon.

A drink at "the local" -- where social and financial status cease to matter -- remains one of the average Briton's favorite pastimes.

"If you took a guy from the 10th Century and brought him forward in time, the only things he would recognize in the world today are churches and pubs," said Peter Brown, the author of "Man Walks Into a Pub," a history of pubs and beer.

The smoking ban may also be attracting a new kind of customer, Brown said.

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"[Smokers] stopped going to the pub immediately as soon as the ban came in, whereas a lot of other people who didn't used to go to pubs have now started to come back to the pub because they now prefer a smoke-free environment," he said.

Advocates say pubs provide a safe place to drink and are a valuable part of British culture. They are lobbying the British government to help stop their rapid decline by cutting beer taxes and changing planning laws to prevent pub demolitions.

CNN's Robin Oakley contributed to this report.

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