The Burning Issue

Austria’s compromise solution to the new EU directive on the smoking-ban may simply be prolonging the pain

News | Christian Cummins | February 2009

There are two approaches to everything, aren’t there? Do you remember when you were a kid and you’d wear a band aid over that grazed knee? When it was time for it to come off, you tugged away at it, but not too hard, because the edge of the band aid was stuck on a few hairs and, for ten minutes, you would be peeling it off carefully, centimeter by centimeter, over several stages to avoid the pain, but it was hurting like hell anyway.

And then your mom would come into the room and say (in that annoying "mother knows best" voice that you hated) that she was going to rip it off in one foul swoop because that was the "least painful way, dear." And you’d look at her in horror as if she’d lost her last crumb of sanity, and you’d say "Over my dead body, mother dearest!"

And then she’d point out of the window and say "Look at that poodle outside. My Lord, it’s got six legs!" And you, because you could not believe your own flesh and blood would lie to you, would foolishly follow her finger with your gaze.

And while you were distracted she’d rip the damned band aid from your knee, and it would hurt so much that suddenly tears were in your eyes. But it was over and you could move on and finally forget your knee. And while you were suitably appalled at her treacherous mendacity, you realized maybe she had a point about the pain.

Perhaps that would have been the way to deal with the never-ending debate about an Austrian smoking ban. Modern thinking on the necessity of protecting workers, but also guests, against passive smoke has changed; and, with countries like Turkey, Greece, and Croatia already committing to a smoke-free future, few figures in politics or gastronomy really believe anyone will be smoking in European bars by, say, the end of 2011.

The new Austrian Health Minister Alois Stöger has already announced that his goal is for fewer people to smoke in fewer locations and, at the end of last year, the EU Commission issued a green paper on "legal mechanisms and health promotion initiatives." This has been seen as the first step of a long legislative process to introduce a Europe-wide anti-smoking regulation based on the protection of workers’ health.

Faced with this new reality, there has been a split in the way governments have approached the question. Countries like Italy and France decided to quickly rip the band aid off, while Germany, and particularly Austria, seem to have gone for the peeling option. This has meant a new smoking-law coming into effect at the beginning of this year that has many exceptions and loopholes: eateries can avoid creating non-smoking sections; if they do create one, they don’t have to build in a protecting door between the sections yet; and tobacco companies can continue to hand out free cigarettes.

This has pleased no one, according to Bettina Fernsebner-Kokert of Der Standard.

"When the new smoking-ban showed any effect in its first days, it was general annoyance: smokers, non-smokers, and landlords, too – and rightly so." Non-smokers don’t feel any more protected, nor any more encouraged to take their families to cafés; smokers still feel stigmatised; and landlords who weren’t granted exemptions are envious of those who were. They say the playing field is no longer level. Meanwhile, gastronomy workers continue to spend several hours a day in an environment that doctors say is liable to cause chronic or even lethal health complications.

We’ve been tugging at the band aid for 50 years now. If you take a step back and look at the past half-century, there is a clear progression that you could mark on a graph. But each step has been accompanied by only a little yelp. Indeed, each development has been heralded as the end of the cultural world as we know it, but it’s consoling to see how quickly we adapt.

I saw some footage dating from the 1960’s on Bavarian television where commuters were confronted by TV journalists with the imminent ban on smoking in trams. Some complained that the state was treating them like children; others asserted that puffing in the tram was one of their inalienable rights. The smokers claimed they would go to the barricades if the government dared impose this legislation. I doubt they were exaggerating – that’s how they sincerely felt. But nowadays only very few people in Europe see it as an infringement on their rights that they can’t smoke in a tram.

Thinking has moved on. It always does. A few weeks ago, I was in the surreal situation of sitting in the cinema, watching a scene set in a cinema. The film was set in the 1970’s. On screen, people were smoking in the cinema hall. Around me, some people tittered in awe like latter-day Beavis and Buttheads. It seemed almost unthinkable to be able to smoke inside the cinema, whereas a few decades ago it seemed unthinkable not to.

So, attitudes towards the acceptability and inevitability of passive smoke have been changing for a long time. But, after 2004, that development speeded up exponentially since Ireland put the cat amongst the pigeons by showing that passive smoking in bars and restaurants was no longer a necessary evil for those who have to work there. The big question since then for politicians has been this: do you embrace the development and make it your own, or do you treat it as a foreign entity and follow behind with your heels dug reluctantly in the dirt?

I’ve always known New York, where I spent some time as a student, to be a "Yes we can" sort of place. So, I wasn’t particularly surprised that that city was one of the first places to not only adopt rigorous passive-smoke protection but then also to champion the move as its own. If you heard the New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg touting tobacco legislation in Berlin last year, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he had dreamed up the whole concept himself.

Italy was a surprise though, wasn’t it? Not just because a country with a relatively high proportion of smokers was among the first countries to adopt a strict blanket ban, but because the ban was not only obeyed (unlike many traffic regulations!) but has also proved widely popular. Public opinion poll has shown that 83 percent of Italians were in favor of the new ban at the time of its introduction and that figure has only risen since. Maybe it’s a question of leadership. Many Italians I’ve spoken to put that down to Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia’s marketing of the law. "This law is not a prohibitionist law;" he said, "we don’t prohibit smokers from smoking, we just ask for the protection of non-smokers."

I tired of the hypocrisy of politicians talking of the importance of "free-choice" on this issue when four Austrian provincial governments come out in favour of making all skiers in Austria wear helmets on the slopes. Where’s the consistent anti-nanny state line there? And I am always surprised when people who describe themselves as progressive defend the status quo so vehemently.

But I recognize that resistance to change has its undeniable attractions – also for guests in this country. I have a friend who writes tourist guide-books. He surprises himself at how often he uses the expression "timeless charm" to describe features of Austria, such as the smoke-filled Café Hawelka.

So, I fully acknowledge that many people admire the authorities’ defence of a smoking culture in defiance of modern trends. You don’t have to do something just because everyone else is doing it, of course. But if you are one of those who admire that battling spirit, you have to hope the government will and can stick to its guns until the bitter end on this one. If on the other hand, Austria arrives grumbling at the same blanket ban destination as the rest of Europe with just a two or three year time lag, and that is what most people expect, hasn’t all this arguing, all this ventilation-building, all this glass-wall erecting, all this tugging at the band aid been a huge waste of time, money, effort and, potentially, people’s lives?

(One out of two teens and adults smokes in Austria, one of the highest smoking rates in Europe. In 2007, 14,000 people died from smoking-related diseases out of an overall population of 8.2 million. In the same year, only 686 people died on Austrian roads. The wearing of seat-belts is, rightly, obligatory)

Other articles from this issue