Cafés Cornered

The service industry must choose between smoking or renovation

On The Town | Bisera Bozinovska | February 2009

The Kaffeehaus has a long and distinguished tradition in Vienna. As early as the end of 17th century the cafés were introduced to the Viennese. By late 19th and early 20th century leading writers of the time became attached to the atmosphere. And even in today’s hectic world it is completely normal for a customer to linger for hours, enjoy a one-of-a-kind Mélange while reading the omnipresent newspapers or talking to a friend – all the while enjoying a cigarette.

Once a social accessory, now usually replaced by tiny dogs (at least in films), cigarettes have become considered a health threat by most governments in the West, and grounds for an EU-wide ban on smoking in most public places.

Tobacco is now considered the leading cause of avoidable deaths in the European Union, accounting for over half a million deaths each year in the EU, according to the EU Public Health internet platform. Therefore, the EU has followed the example of the United States and has directed EU member states to ban public smoking.

Austria has been one of the last to adapt an anti-smoking law. In a country where 38% of the population smokes, and where tourism – much of which takes place in the restaurants – is the largest industry, to forbid smoking altogether is unthinkable.

Thus, in January 2008, the government put in place the first version of its anti-smoking law.  Negotiated in cooperation with the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, division for the food and beverage industry, it was not strongly enforced, however. So this year, the government tried again, issuing a new version of the law.

This recent non-smoking law established in Austria on Jan. 1, states that establishments with less than 50 square meters are allowed to choose whether to accept smokers or not. Two thirds of the locales in this category have said they will continue to allow smoking, according to the latest survey by the Austrian Chamber of Commerce (WKO).

Establishments having 80 square meters or more must have a separate non-smoking section.

The reactions have been mixed. The newspaper Kurier accused the former government, which passed the law, of "bending its knees before the tourism and gastronomy sectors."

However, according to the owner of Café Korb, "at least 80 percent of our customers are smokers and since the other cafés around us have forbidden smoking completely we have gained more business because we still allow it."

38 percent of the establishments between 50 and 80 square meters will seek an exception from the authorities on grounds of architecture or security. Either way, those that do plan to have separate rooms have until Jul. 1, 2010, to do so and can continue to allow smoking until then.

Although the effects are yet to be seen here in Austria, the smoking ban has had its victims in other EU countries.

In France, for example the number of cafés decreased from 200,000 to about 41,500 in reaction to the economic crisis and the extended smoking ban to bars, cafés, and restaurants in January 2008.

In Germany, by contrast, some bar owners facing a total ban adapted immediately, by becoming ‘smoking clubs’ where the members were then allowed, by definition, to smoke. Nevertheless, the casinos there have suffered a loss among a clientele who are used to smoking while gambling.

However, the Germans had fought against the ban and the Germany’s top court had ruled that the smoking ban is unconstitutional, unfairly declining profits. Therefore, smoking will now be allowed in one-room bars and clubs smaller than 75 square meters where no food is served.

The Austrian wine bar and restaurant chain Wein&Co. found the adjustment difficult. After converting completely to non-smoking on Jan. 1, 2008, by September, they were ready to change back.

"At the beginning the business ran well, but suddenly we had a decline in our sales-volume of about 15 percent," said Oliver Sartena, the marketing manager and company spokesman of Wein&Co., in an interview with The Vienna Review. "After this nine month-period of being a non-smoking bar/restaurant, we decided to lift the ban."

At first they tried changing back only at the Wein&Co Bar/Restaurant in Vienna’s 1st District, and the results were obvious.

"The sales-volume rose again, so the decision was clear for several other Wein&Co Bars to follow."

In the period of non-smoking, "the regular guests failed to appear," Sartena said, "and many smokers had a glass of wine, but did not stay longer."

On the other hand, "for the non-smoking guests, it was great to get a place where they could enjoy food and wine in clear atmosphere, so we also had some mothers with their children in the afternoon… "

Helmut Hinterleitner and Dr. Tomas Wolf, Chairman and CEO respectively of the Trade Association of the Food and Beverage Industry hosted a conference in December 2008 at Vienna’s Café Prückel – held, ironically enough, in the non-smoking section.

The atmosphere was mellow, just another morning at an Austrian Kaffeehaus, with everyone in the audience sipping coffee and nibbling on little sandwiches. When the brief presentations were over, the floor was open to questions.

Despite the difficulties in Germany and France, Austrians are optimistic.

"This is a good compromise," said Hinterleitner, referring to the new regulations.  He claims that this is a "national law," – in other words, voluntary – and that it was not something imposed by the EU. He thinks that Austria will not follow Italy, France and Germany in a complete ban. Small, traditional cafés will remain unaffected, able to choose whether to ban smoking or not.

So by choice, Austria will remain where it was as of last October, in last place in an EU-wide study on tobacco control.  Across the European Union overall there has been a 28 percent decrease reported in toxic smoke effects among non-smokers since the beginning of 2006 – understood to result from smoking bans.

Austria made its position clear: The café culture stays and the non-smokers have more places to gather that are smoke free.

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