Smoking Central Europe

Until recently, a haven for smokers, values are changing

At an international tourism summit on Mar. 9 in Berlin, the Austrian Economics Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner admitted that the present complicated tobacco legislation, involving partitions and exemptions, had been a mistake.

“A general ban on smoking in gastronomy should have been passed,” he was quoted as saying in Styria’s Kleine Zeitung. “A complete solution is always better than a half solution,” he added, belatedly echoing the advice of medical advisors and anti-tobacco campaigners when the partial ban was passed.

Austria’s tobacco law, which gives cafés and bars under 50 square metres the right to choose whether to run their businesses as smoking or smoke-free establishments, has done little to reduce the prevalence of smoke indoors. About 90% of these still allow smoking and few of the large establishments, which are legally obliged to offer separate rooms, partition their rooms in the way the law stipulates. Doors, if they exist, are left open and non-smoking guests often report feeling cheated.

Petra Stolba from the Austria Tourism Office described the situation as disastrous for a country reliant on its tourism industry:

“Guests, especially those from the U.S., Italy and England, are shocked by the smoky bars,” she told the delegates at the same meeting.

Austria’s liberal solution didn’t promise any “visible advantage for gastronomy,” said Mitterlehner, adding that European society was clearly moving in the direction of a smoke-free atmosphere as the norm indoors.

But the problem now, as the minister recognised, was that the current Austrian law had obliged restaurateurs and café or owners to invest sometimes thousands of Euros in renovating their business premises to comply with the law. And while not all have complied, it seemed unfair to take further action that would make these investments in vain. He said he was expecting a stricter law to come via EU legislation to protect workers in gastronomy.

Not long ago, Central Europe was seen as one of the last bastions of smoking in eating and drinking establishments, but slowly, attitudes do seem to be changing. In February, the Prague Post reported that a petition campaigning for smoke-free restaurants had attracted more than 115,000 signatures. About 300 benches around Prague have been displaying posters in support of the campaign, with the advertising space donated for free by the owner of an outdoor advertising firm who was sympathetic to the cause. The initiative has also featured adverts in several radio stations.

Campaigner Dr. Eva Králíková of the Center for Treatment of Tobacco Dependence at General Teaching Hospital and a member of the Charles University Faculty of Medicine, told the Prague Post that the health benefits of public smoking bans were “clearly proven.” Not mincing words, she added that “any MP who votes against smoke-free legislation is either totally stupid or corrupt.”

In Hungary a proposal by governing party Fidesz to ban smoking in all closed public spaces from the middle of the year – including entertainment venues, restaurants and offices – was submitted at the end of last month. The move was supported by Hungary’s ombudsman for future generations Sandor Fulop who told press agencies that the right to a healthy life must receive priority over business interests, however the move has been opposed by MPs from the Christian Democrats and over a dozen amendment motions have since been submitted.

In Austria doctors, who have been pushing for stricter legislation, have welcomed the comments. In November the first global study into the effects of passive smoking, carried out by the World Health Organization, found out it causes 600,000 deaths every year.

However Mitterlehner’s remarks caused concern in the industry. “The comments of the Economics Minister were an incomprehensible turn-around and in completely unnecessary,” said Helmut Hinterleitner, chairman of the Gastronomy Section of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. Many companies in the hotel and restaurant business came up with a lot of money to adapt their spaces, he said, investments whose purpose is called into question his words.

“Now more than ever,” he said, “the businesses have a right to expect support from the minister.”

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