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The smoking ban gains momentum in Europe - but not yet in Austria

News | Justin McCauley | December 2009 / January 2010

It’s a desperate time for Europe’s smokers. All the decadent societies of legend – Italy, France, Spain, as well as the UK, Germany and the Netherlands – have joined the ranks of the European Union-wide smoking ban, which applies to all restaurants, cafes and bars, and sends legions of frantic smokers out onto windblown balconies and huddled in doorways.

Fortunately for them, Austria is coming to the rescue – at least for now. With an increasing number of countries going "smoke free", Austria remains one of the few holdouts. The prohibition has not yet been fully applied here, much to the delight of the country’s 1.6 million smokers. Austria has chosen instead a multi-option compromise solution (perhaps typical of the culture’s inability to face controversy head on), where in any locale under 50 square metese the proprietor is free to choose smoking or non-smoking. Larger than 80m2, a non-smoking space must be provided with a partition and appropriate ventilation. Between 50 and 80 square meters, establishments have managed to escape the law on conservation, architectural and even security grounds.

A product of these un-efficacious laws is the much talked about advent of "smoking tourism."

As a result of the ban, many Europeans now consider their smoking habit when planning holidays. This additional consideration makes Vienna – where the tourism industry is in need of a little rejuvenation – a prime destination for smokers from all over the continent who long to enjoy a cigarette during dinner or while having a beer at a bar.

"It’s nice to be able to smoke after a meal and not have to go outside," Max Hinn, a tourist from Germany told The Vienna Review as he puffed on a Gauloises while dining in Café Hawelka.

There have nonetheless been efforts to bring Austria into the non-smoking fold. In January 2009, the new law regarding non-smoking partitions was implemented – however, this does little to alter the advantageous relationship between smoking, business and tourism in Austria.

The popular chain of shop/bar amalgams Wein & Co. banned smoking a year ago, but recently lifted it prohibition in response to a significant drop in business. The ban "was not good for us" said one Wein & Co. employee, "it’s a pity." According to many, without a comprehensive ban like in other countries, any unilateral attempt to prohibit smoking is bound to fail. Pulmonary disease specialist Sylvia Hartl of Vienna’s Otto Wagner hospital told the Austrian Times earlier this year, "the Austrian smoking ban won’t work because it’s almost not a ban."

That equals good news for Austria’s tourism industry. In addition to the city’s many attractions, smoking freedom is yet another reason for travelers and tourists to chose Vienna. According to Barbora Adamcová, a Slovak university student, "I come for shopping, but we just banned smoking in restaurants [in Slovakia] so I enjoy being in Vienna for that now too." While smoking alone may not be motivation for making a trip, for many, it definitely adds to the appeal.

What does this mean for businesses? In countries where the ban has been fully enforced, establishments with considerable outdoor seating have become more popular – some underground bars have been forced to invest thousands of euros constructing specially ventilated smoking rooms in an effort to retain their smoking customers. In Austria, it seems that attempts to create smoke-free environments – such as Wein & Co. – are being met with hostility. However, this is not uniformly true.

Café der Provinz, in the 8th district, has been smoke-free for five years, and according to owner Herwig Walch, business is as good as ever. The measures that Italian and French cafés have taken in response to the ban has been his inspiration, he says – if the approach is well thought out and intelligently implemented, it can work. Café der Provinz offers a pleasant alternative to the traditional, smoke-filled European coffee house. It maintains its rustic, provençal atmosphere nonetheless, and with easy access to outdoors, smokers are not too inconvenienced. Ultimately, it is the excellent bistro food and unique ambiance that allows customers to overcome the café’s self-imposed restriction.

Eventually though, the dreaded smoking ban will reach Austria in full force, and Viennese restaurants, bars and cafes will be forced to adapt. However, until then, the freedom to enjoy a cigarette in a café or during a meal will remain on the list of Vienna’s many attractions. Nonetheless, if done properly, businesses can implement a no-smoking policy and survive. While right now Austria is in vogue because of its smoking freedom, restaurants like Café der Provinz are an indication that, once the ban arrives, Austrians will somehow get through it okay.

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