All Puffed Out

The Mystique of the Viennese KaffeehausMay Well be About to Change

51% of all Austrians are smokers | Photo: Creative Commons

Café Havelka in the Dorotheergasse, early in the morning before the crowd arrives. Guest are already lighting up | Photo: Creative Commons

No matter how much Vienna changes, it’s reassuring to think that one place will always remain the same. It’s ten o’clock on a Tuesday evening in Café Hawelka, neatly tucked away in a corner of the Dorotheegasse in the First District, and everything is as it always has been. The dark, tobacco-stained décor doesn’t look as if it has been changed for half a century and the 95 year-old proprietor, Leopold Hawelka, is serving his guests coffee, traditional Buchtel cakes, or perhaps a relaxing glass of red wine, in what the tourist guides describe as an ‘original coffee-house atmosphere.’

51% of all Austrians are smokers | Photo: Creative Commons

Uninitiated guests from abroad are often taken aback when they find out exactly what bathing in that original atmosphere actually entails. As midnight draws close, Café Hawelka is becoming engulfed in an ever thicker soup of cigarette and cigar smoke. It has left Kent, a 26 year-old tourist from San Diego, complaining of stingingly sore eyes. He wafts his arm left and right like a windscreen-wiper, as he dramatically and demonstratively sweeps the smoke away from his table. “This is crazy!” he says. His host grins: “This is Vienna.”

Fifty-one percent of Austrians are smokers, one of the highest rates in the EU, and, despite decades of ever more urgent health warnings, that figure is rising, not falling, as more and more young people turn to cigarettes. But that still means, of course, that 49% of Austrians are non-smokers; and many of them are now pushing for greater protection from the second-hand smoke that Michael Studnicka, a lung expert from Salzburg, has claimed kills 80,000 Europeans every year. That figure is contested by some medics, but new research continues to highlight the risks of regularly breathing in passive fumes of your neighbor’s Memphis. Indeed, a study in neighbouring Bavaria, published on Feb.18, showed that the air pollution levels in bars, restaurants and nightclubs can be 20 times the levels measured in the heavy traffic of city streets. This prompted renowned German cancer researcher Martina Pötschke-Langer to recommend gas masks for the staff in German and Austrian Lokale.

Week after week, stories of the dangers of passive smoking hit the headlines. Even Hawelka may be drawn into the furious debate that has ensued in the past few months. On Feb. 22, the Austrian Association for the Protection of Non-Smokers (Österreichische Schutzgemeinschaft für Nichtraucher) called for a total ban on smoking in all bars and restaurants. Encouraged by strict bans on smoking recently imposed in Italy, Ireland, France and the U.K., the group criticised current legislation in Austria and accused the government of failing to protect the rights of non-smokers. Spokesman Robert Rockenbauer compared being forced to inhale second-hand smoke with being subjected to active bodily harm.

The new health minister, Andrea Kdolsky, insists that protecting non-smoking Austrians is one of the government’s top priorities. But, with the country split down the middle, and the restaurant industry resistant to a ban, she believes in compromise. Her current solution, adopted from her predecessor in office Maria Rauch-Kallat, is for a system of voluntary self-regulation. Since Jan.1, 90% of restaurants and bistros larger than 75 square metres were to  have set-aside 40% of their seating for non-smokers, and these seats should be separated by partition from the smoking area. Smaller businesses, such as bars or cafés like the Hawelka, are exempt from the new regulations.

So far, the voluntary solution has failed to satisfy many of Austria’s non-smokers. The catering business, fearing a loss of business (and perhaps change in general), has interpreted the agreement rather liberally. Although many establishments have indeed designated a section of their tables for non-smokers, many of these are tucked away in unattractive dark corners, by the toilets for example; and precious few businesses have adequately separated the two zones: Professor Stanton A. Glantz, a U.S.-based researcher on the relationship between second-hand  smoke and heart disease, is unimpressed by the compromise.

Café Havelka in the Dorotheergasse, early in the morning before the crowd arrives. Guest are already lighting up | Photo: Creative Commons

“That doesn’t take account of the fact that air moves,” he objects. “It’s like having a swimming pool and saying people can only pee in 60% of the water.”

Minister Kdolsky disagrees and has sent out inspectors to patrol businesses to monitor conformance with the regulations. If it doesn’t work, she promises, the government will consider further action:
With an estimated 14,000 Austrians dying every year from the effects of tobacco smoke and a recent study indicating that 1 in 4 Austrians over the age of 40 suffers from chronic lung disease, Health Minister Andrea Kdolsky insists she is not taking the issue lightly. A media storm unleashed by her refreshingly honest admission on talking office in January that she was not averse to the odd cigarette has, by her own admission, left her bruised. But as a qualified medical doctor, who reports having now given up entirely ‘to set a good example,’ insists that draconian bans and dire warnings are not going to change Austria’s smoking culture in the long term.

Kdolsky points to the example of Italy, where a ban on smoking in all enclosed public places, including bars and restaurants, came into effect at midnight on the 10th January 2006. In the weeks immediately following, tobacconists reported a 20% fall in cigarette sales.

But since then, the figures have been rising again, and it seems that there has been little cultural change. Thus Kdolsky says she would like to focus on education rather than bans. Earlier in February, on the eve of World Cancer Day, she complained that many young Austrians are simply unaware of the dangers of tobacco smoke. She also believes that giving them more opportunities to get involved in sport could help combat nicotine addiction. The more you use your body, the less likely you are to abuse it, so to speak. And she thinks positive non-smoking role-models, such as sportstars, could also help.

“I have to give young people the feeling that it isn’t chic to smoke,” she said.

The health minister isn’t going to escape the growing calls for a more effective ban, however. Loud voices are coming from her fellow politicians in Austria’s provinces. In December, the legislative assembly in the province of Styria voted for a blanket ban on smoking in restaurants in the province. The motion called on the federal government to clear the way for the ban by changing tobacco laws. The governor of Salzburg has added her support for stricter legislation. Meanwhile, the E.U. Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou has let it be known that he would like to see all member nations following Ireland’s model for a total ban on smoking in the catering trade by the time he steps down in 2009.

Will the timeless Café Hawelka have to change with the times? Ninety five-year-old Leopold Hawelka shrugs at the oncoming storm predicted by his customers. He has seen too many things come and go over the years to worry about it.

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