To Smoke, or Not to Smoke

Having ignored the EU directive, Austrian regulators try again; restaurants, bars and cafes may finally make adjustments

News | Bisera Bozinovska | October 2008

With the pressure from the EU, European restaurants, cafés, and bars are becoming increasingly non-smoking. One of the last countries to adapt, Austria, is slowly being disarmed by the pressure from the outside. In spite of long traditions of smoking as a trademark of European life in public places, the European Parliament had chosen to take the side of the non-smokers exposed each time they walk into restaurants, night clubs, bars, and cafes. Repeated studies have documented the dangers of what has been named "passive smoking," studies that have become the basis for the recent spate of laws to protect non smokers. However equally affected are restaurants and bars.

In Austria, the EU anti-smoking law will be fully enforced for the first time in January 2009.  Although the ban theoretically took effect as of last January, that law was more of "a gentlemen’s agreement" between the Chamber of Commerce and the government, according to Germot Liska, an official with the Austrian Federal Chamber of Commerce (WKÖ, Wirtschaftskammer Österreich).

The Restaurant and Bar Association hoped to make 90 percent of the establishments put aside 40 percent of their space for the non-smokers but they failed and the government had to strengthen the law. The Chamber of Commerce once again was part of the negations.

"We have reached a compromise," reported Germot Liska in late September, satisfied with the negotiations. The establishments of less than 50 square meters will be allowed to decide whether or not to allow smoking; for businesses between 50 to 80 square meters the authorities will decide individually. However in the establishments of more than 80 square meters the owners will have to put aside at least 50% of the seating area for the non-smokers.

The question for many, he said, is how it will work in reality. Liska is most worried about the discos and night clubs that are over 80 square meters and yet have only one room. Under the new law, they will have to provide a separate room, and many will need to remodel, which can be expensive, and raises questions of inspections and enforcement. Most in the industry assume that as over 50 percent of Austria’s population smokes, everyone will have to serve smokers to stay in business, while providing the required separate room for the non-smokers. In smaller towns and villages, discos may have the support of the local government, but in the bigger cities, Liska predicts, venues will have to manage on their own.

"Does the government have the right to limit people with such harsh measures," asks Konrad Gill, the son of the owner of Café Kaisermuhlen, in the 22nd District? His café is over 100 square meters, which by the new law means he has to provide alternatives.

"I have a separate room, but no one will sit there anyway." His guests tend to congregate there as much for the company as the food and drink.

"However I am not very concerned with the law," he admitted. "If inspection doesn’t come often, making me pay a penalty, I will not have a non-smoking area. And I don’t think that the other cafes will obey the law either."  All in all, he thinks the non-smoking law is a bad idea, and that it is unlikely to work in Austria.

"My café is my property, why should the government have the power to tell me what to do? If there were a market of non-smokers, there would be more non-smoking establishments."

The biggest fear of many owners of the restaurants, cafes, bars, and night clubs is the financial risk the prohibition puts them in.

"The casinos in Germany had a decrease in profit between 20 to 40 percent," said Konrad Gill.

Wolfgang Hanzl, co-owner with his brother Karl of the Porterhouse Restaurant in the first District, doesn’t see the new anti-smoking law as a threat, saying that it simply won’t be enforced.

"My restaurant will be smoking, Austrians are smokers, people come to our restaurant for steak, café, and cigarettes." The 74 square meters big Porterhouse falls between 50 to 80 meters; therefore the authorities will need to chose how to categorize it.

Most restaurants over 50 square meters don’t seem to see the new law as a threat, believing it will not be enforced, just like the old one. The owners of these restaurants, cafes, and bars see smoking as central to their businesses and agree that if the ban is enforced – as in Italy, Germany or Ireland – their revenues will decline.

The perspective of the owner of Café der Provinz, Herwig Walch is completely different. Owner of one of the few non-smoking restaurants in Vienna, he opened his French-style bistro after a visit to post-ban Italy.

"At the beginning, it was very difficult," Walch admitted. "Many people would come in and then leave when we told them it was a non-smoking restaurant." Over time, however, Café der Provinz earned a reputation for its atmosphere and its cuisine, making the question moot. Anyway, Walch himself is a smoker, only not in a restaurant. He thinks that there is definitely a market for a non-smoking establishment. "I can count how many people have walked out because my restaurant is non-smoking, but I can’t count how many have come in for the same reason."

So whether café, restaurant and bar owners will cooperate remains to be seen. Or if they do, how it will affect their businesses. And perhaps hardest to assess, one wonders whether enforcing this law will help any of Austria’s 3.5 million smokers kick the habit.

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