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Smoking bans now the norm in Europe


Monday 25 February 2013
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A smoker who travels regularly across Europe these days would do well to keep a guide in their back pocket to determine when and where they can light up. If they were in London, they cannot smoke anywhere inside a restaurant or pub. If they were in a Paris bar, they could only smoke in a designated enclosed room. But if in Berlin, they could feel free to light up anywhere in any pub.

This patchwork of restrictions is reflected in an implementation report issued by the European Commission on Friday (22 February), showing what steps member states have taken since the EU called for national legislation protecting citizens from smoke exposure in 2009. 17 member states now have full bans on indoor smoking in place. The strictest of these – which do not permit smoking even in designated ventilated areas – are found in the UK, Bulgaria and Spain.

But what exists on paper is often not the case in reality. Smoking is theoretically banned in restaurants and bars in Greece. But any visitors to the bars of Athens might be surprised to learn that smoking is technically banned, given that the law is not being enforced. Athenians will tell you that the only change they observed after the ban went into effect was that bars hid their ash trays. The usual culprit is to blame - legal loopholes. 

Countries with loopholes are shown in green on the map above. The Commission notes that in the states where enforcement has been a problem, complexity in the law is often to blame. This problem has been particularly acute in the German states, which have adopted a perplexing patchwork of different laws. States such as Bavaria which have allowed an exception for “private clubs” have seen bars get around the ban by simply changing their status.

Still, the situation across Europe has changed significantly from just a few years ago, and the smoky situation in Germany is now a major anomaly for Western Europe. According to the

Commission, 28% of Europeans were exposed to second hand smoke in bars in 2012 – down from 46% in 2009. The drop in exposure rates was almost immediate following smoking bans adopted in Belgium, Spain and Poland. In other countries, where enforcement of and respect for the new law was not as high, the exposure rate is taking longer to fall.

A map of the new bans shows it is mostly in Eastern Europe where smoking in bars and restaurants is still found. But even those states where public indoor smoking is still allowed have some kind of plan in place for a ban in the future. The Czech government readied a proposal for a ban in bars and restaurants last month.

The patchwork situation closely resembles the situation in the United States, where states have adopted varying bans with different degrees of stringency. But the trend is still moving toward more bans and increased stringency. There is also a geographic pattern in the US – the states which have yet to adopt any ban are almost all found in the South.

Within Europe, it isn't just the EU states that are adopting bans. Norway has had a ban in place for some time, and in Switzerland most of the cantons have now adopted bans (though they are plagued with similar loop-hole problems as in Germany). In Russia, the parliament just adopted a law to ban smoking in restaurants, long-distance trains and housing block entrances.

Back in 2010, former health commissioner John Dalli suggested that the EU may propose legislation to require member states to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. But the review published on Friday plays down any such possibility. It may be that such a directive is unnecessary considering this seems to be the direction member states are headed in anyway. Given that such bans remain incredibly unpopular with a specific segment of the population (smokers), perhaps Brussels is happy to let the national governments take the heat. That being said, a 2009 eurobarometer survey showed that 61% of Europeans favour smoking bans in bars, while 79% favour bans in restaurants.

It would appear that indoor public smoking is destined to go the way of the dodo.

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