Smoke Screen Reloaded

The clash between Austria’s smoking and anti-smoking titans rages on while the rest of the world seems to have made peace

Another rainy day in October and I’m looking for shelter, holding a bag over my head in a futile attempt to stay dry. I spot a café and dash towards it in eager anticipation of hot coffee and tranquility but as soon as my hand reaches for the door I freeze up. A red square depicting a crossed out cigarette, tiny white letters lining the bottom, stares me dead in the face. I almost moan in despair. But I do not yield. I return in to the rain to look for other options.

This scenario has been playing itself out with alarming speed for the 18 months, but I still choose to cling to my misguided sense of pride, refusing to support non-smoking establishments.

Implemented in January 2009, the smoking ban in bars, restaurants and cafes made it feel like the party was finally over. The first couple of weeks saw smokers almost ready to accept defeat. But as businesses grew worried about a rapid drop in customers, they found that there was no one around enforcing the ban. The threat of a 10,000 euro fine if owners failed to uphold the law had no teeth, as no agency had apparently been assigned to carry out the regulation.

So after the dust settled and smoke free areas were designated, the ban was treated as a joke, as people in a number of bars and pubs lit up directly under non-smoking signs, convinced the proprietors would turn a blind eye. Most did.

This went on until July 2010 – the deadline for providing non-smokers with safe zones. Most establishments larger than 50 square meters and lucky enough to have several rooms simply split them up according to preference. Those that couldn’t provide customers with glass walls to isolate smokers from, what seems like, the rest of the world.

“I feel like I’m constantly in the spotlight in those rooms. Like everyone outside is invited to peer at me,” my girlfriend Alexandrina Vyshnevskaya told me. And I understand her point – why put yourself through the inconvenience of sitting in a tiny room, uncomfortable and alienated, when smaller bars and cafes still reserve the right to choose?

With Austria having the highest percentage of smokers in the EU – about 2.5 million, 30% of the population and some 60% of those between 25 and 50, according to Horst Olschewski, Director of the Pulmonary Division at the Graz University Hospital – it’s no surprise that two thirds of the relevant venues still allow smokers to indulge their habit.

So the ban is not really a ban. And considering the ripple effects of the recent economic crisis and the example of the UK, where thanks to the ban, 6,000 pubs alone are expected to go out of business by 2012, it becomes obvious why the Austrian government is reluctant to crack down on smoking.

Anti-smoking enthusiasts created a group on Facebook in December 2009 and by August 2010 they grew 110,000 members strong. They plan to petition the government to ban smoking in all public places in the upcoming provincial elections and have so far secured the support of the Green Party and several pharmacies. Austria’s Health Minister Alois Stöger has spoken out in support of a full ban, but besides that has shown little interest in changing the current legislation and rejected calls for a referendum. Opinion polls are inconclusive as some boast up to a 52% approval rate of a total ban whereas others claim that it’s a meager 19%.

The atmosphere is one of frustration on both sides – non-smokers don’t feel protected and smokers, accustomed to the freedom they have been able to preserve, rile at the restrictions they are suddenly faced with.

The limbo fuels fanatics on both sides, and accusations are thick and fast. A fine example would be the website dedicated to opposing the ban ( featuring a quote from Goebbels: “The German woman does not smoke, she gives birth to children” comparing the supporters of the ban to the Nazis, which seems a little overboard even for a dedicated smoker such as myself.

On the other hand we have the less organized but nonetheless extreme cases of aggressive non-smokers expressing their disdain for the “filthy habit” in the most tasteless of ways. A discussion thread about smoking in Austria on led me to a comment saying that women who smoke during pregnancy should be dragged out into the street and stoned.

But the bitterness of Austrian smokers is primarily because they know they are fighting a losing battle. We just can’t bring ourselves up to admit that time is not on our side. All around the world smoking is going out of fashion, leaving Austria one of the last outposts of 20thcentury aesthetics.

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