Smoking Sections... Again?

Unmaking an Austrian solution that works

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | December 2013 / January 2014

Friday, 25 November. It was a headline in the U-Bahn daily Heute that got the talk started all over again: In the current negotiations on the new governing coalition, "an agreement was imminent" to make smoking illegal in all bars and restaurants in Austria.

And just as quickly, a denial came from Lisa Fuchs, spokeswoman for Health Minister Alois Stöger.

Although the minister himself was working for such a ruling, "there is definitely no agreement," she told the Austrian daily Die Presse the same day.

Insiders said industry opposition – with the expressed support of the Chamber of Commerce – was simply too strong for any opposition to succeed.

So for the moment, smokers can relax, blow a few more elegant rings overhead and order another round of Grünerveltliner.

This pleased my taxi driver this morning – always a good source for a reading on the vox populi.

"That at was a close call!" He had a contagious laugh, heightening a startling resemblance to famed cabarettist Helmut Qualtinger.

Was he a smoker? Not any more, he reported proudly; he hadn’t smoked in a decade. "But I’m in favour of free choice in these things. What can be wrong with some of each?"

Which makes him a fair representative of the Austrian public. Austria has, in fact, been among the most reluctant to follow the 2009 European Council recommendations calling on members to protect their citizens from exposure to tobacco smoke.

While laws have been passed here banning smoking in government buildings and on public transit, there is only a partial ban in the work place, where employers may allow specially designated rooms for smokers.

In fact, 81% of Austrians support these terms, according a 2009 Eurobarometer Survey on Tobacco.

But the most controversial area by far has been in restaurants, where just over 60% of Austrians favour a complete smoking ban (the lowest percentage in the EU), and even fewer in bars, pubs and clubs, where less than half (47%) support the ban.

The current laws reflect this ambivalence: Since January 2009, a restaurant, bar or club, Gasthaus (inn), Heuriger (wine restaurant), Wirtshaus or Beisl (tavern), larger than 50 square metres would have to provide separate smoking rooms.

For anything smaller, the proprietor could designate the Lokal as smoking or non-smoking.

There have been complaints, particularly from anti-smoking campaigners, who say compliance is uneven and enforcement lax. But not many.

Which made the nearly concurrent decision by the Constitutional Court – that no-smoking sections must be reachable without passing through smoking areas – come as all the more of a shock.

"This is just incredible! is decision goes against our whole industry," Wilhelm Turecek, head of the Gastronomy Division of the Vienna Chamber of Commerce told APA.

"Millions have already been invested [on space conversions]. If these renovations suddenly no longer conform, who’s going to cover the costs?"

This is not an idle question. Margins in the restaurant business are notoriously narrow, and a sudden spike in overhead can quickly tip results from black to red.

Also, the bans don’t necessarily work to reduce smoking, it turns out: in France five years on, the number of smokers had actually risen since the introduction of the ban in 2005 – from 28% to 30% of the public who reported smoking every day.

And perhaps even more to the point, the mixed solution seems to work.

Particularly in Vienna, where there is an eatery or watering hole in every third doorway, everyone seems to be able find more than enough congenial places to meet, eat and share a glass.

Many places are smoke free, many are divided, and a few of the little ones have opted for their loyal clientele of smokers.

In small towns, restaurants and taverns, the mixed solution has been even more important.

In these communities, Gasthaus, Wirtshaus and Heuriger are the centres of community life, and so far, Austria has avoided the fate of England and France where in the first years after the ban, both countries reported up to a half a dozen closures a day.

There, locked shutters and darkened windows on village streets remain as witness to the hundreds of pubs and cafés the anti-smoking laws have helped to drive out of business.

Let’s keep the Austrian solution.

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