Smoking for Diversity

The EU’s carpet smoke-ban is initiating a snowball effect that will result in watering down the cultures of its member states

Are there limits to what EU supranationalism should dictate? How far should the EU be going vis-à-vis identity? While European integration is incredibly valuable and highly beneficial for the continent’s 400 million inhabitants, lines have to be drawn when “harmonizing” starts to dilute the cultural identity of its member states. On what level is someone “European” as opposed to “Austrian”? A controversial issue, not only on the EU level, but on national and social levels as well, is the future rights of smokers in European societies. Many argue that a smoking ban is just common sense – tobacco has a devastating effect on populations, and even secondhand smoke greatly increases one’s risk of lung cancer, heart disease, etc. Basically, it’s for the public health, stupid.

But where does this end? Not to cry wolf about how this is the starting point of some dark Orwellian future, but smokers do have rights. Moreover, smoking is not the only danger to public health. Just as many people die of heart disease caused by obesity and diabetes as smoking. Should we outlaw fatty foods? Yes, yes, it’s about the passive smoke – but haven’t a considerable amount of cafés and bars, and virtually all restaurants, created non-smoking sections ages ago? And is it so awful to smell a little smoke in a pub on a Friday night? Banning smoking might feel nice for a lot of people, but the long-term effects will be harder to swallow.

For businesses of course, it has been hard. In England, over 1,500 pubs have been forced to shut down. But the Brits have adapted, and many have given up following the ban. However that’s the UK. What about European nations where smoking is much more engrained in the culture, and where a larger percentage of the population light up regularly? Take France for instance. France has always been a smoker-friendly environment. Cigarettes are one of the key ingredients of the iconic image of French cafés and brasseries. But the fact is, the French smoke. After banning indoor smoking, traditional cafés and bars in France suffered extreme losses, and many are closing because they cannot survive. Since 2008 cafés have been closing with an average of two a day. Furthermore, in the first half of 2008 alone, bankruptcies filed by French cafés and bars rose by 56 percent.

While the smoking ban remains in limbo here in Austria, many businesses are already coming under fire from the government; independent attempts to go smoke-free have also often resulted in a serious loss in profits. But even more than this assault on entrepreneurship, what does it do to European nations culturally?   Just because “Europe” wants to redefine itself as smoke-free, why should countries as diverse as Poland, Italy, Greece and Sweden all follow suit? European integration makes sense economically, and at times politically, but to overemphasize cultural commonality would be a mistake, especially if forced. While European nationalism may have finally been put to rest after the Second World War, European national identity is as strong as ever. Little but incredibly important things, like smoking, are essential.

Yes, the Brits can cope with the ban, but what about the French and the Italians, or the Viennese? A prime example is the testimony of many French restaurateurs. If anyone is a student of the gastronomic collective, it is the café and restaurant owners of Paris. They point out that, because one cannot relax with a cigarette and an espresso anymore, many Parisians are opting for a sandwich on the go rather than a sit-down meal. The prohibition has already begun to alter something at the very heart of French culture: food. For ages, a French dinner would last hours, with endless courses – aperitif, salad, meat, vegetables, cheese, desert…the works – all with ample time in between for a ciggi and a guzzle of vin de table. Now, people are forced to either crowd around outside the restaurant and suck down a quick cig, or else endure half of their dinner party disappearing from the table after every dish (when everyone should be relaxing and chatting about how tasty it was). One quote from an elderly owner sums it up: “ the French are no longer eating and drinking like the French, they are eating and drinking like the Anglo-Saxons.”

The French eating like the English? That…is going too far. A decision will inevitably be reached in Austria as well, and the likelihood is that it will soon join most of the other EU member states in making everywhere smoke-free. But is this not an assault on Austrian culture, much like the French example? Café culture is key in Vienna in much the same way as in Paris. A Café Hawelka or Café Landtmann without smoking is almost unimaginable…the ambience of these venerated cultural Meccas hinges in part on their smoky atmosphere. Would anyone really go to a sterile Hawelka? A lot of patrons would surely pass.

“But its just cigarettes!” you say. But no, these are subtle but extremely important cultural hallmarks; without them, everything starts to slowly change. Perhaps these measures will foster an America-style smoking prejudice, where one can’t light up a cig without getting the look of death from all those around. Yes, it’s discrimination.

While Europeans are violently resisting any EU infringements on national security or judicial policies, they are allowing the Union to caveat national identity. The measure is not immoral or authoritarian, and this editorial will fall short of whining about civil liberties or individual rights. But the fact stands that the ban is something that effects more than just where people can smoke; it disrupts the harmony of social processes, particularly in countries where smoking is close to the heart of the culture. If Ireland wants to stop smoking, that’s fine – but let France smoke, let Italy smoke, let Vienna smoke.

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