Brussels Weighs in On Smoking Laws

Austrian restauranteurs feel trapped as enforcement rules change again

Opinion | Michael R. Weingartner | June 2010

Although overshadowed by the Greek Debt Crisis and pressure on the Euro, the discussion of national smoking laws continues. However, the support for a possible intervention from Brussels has been dampened in Austria by falling restaurant profits as the financial crisis reaches consumers. As people start trimming their household budgets where ever they can, going out to eat becomes a kind of leading indicator of larger trends.

Hardly the best time to add another drag on the industry.

Since the latest round of EU enlargement, decision making has become yet more cumbersome, and the possibility of stalemate on controversial issues increasingly common. Satisfying twenty-seven members with differing national interests is a hard to achieve, and at times it seems they just disagree for the sake of disagreeing.

The smoking laws seem cut in particularly close, involving issues of culture and tradition as the cafes, pubs and bars are the stages where national life is played out in many countries. As a supranational organization, the EU aims to represent each state equally as well as all together. However, this requires that each nation delegate its individual decision making power on certain national issues to Brussels -- which few states are eager or likely to accept. It means a loss of some of its sovereignty, which is another way of saying a loss of identity.

Up to now five EU states have implemented a general smoking ban in food service establishments with certain exemptions. In Italy smoking in restaurant and clubs is forbidden, but it is allowed in bars and cafes.

This fact emphasizes the point that it becomes hard to conclude on one law everyone agrees with. These days society somehow even expects politicians not being able to commonly agree on one solution. If it were the case though the puzzle of problem solving would not be an allure in life anymore.

In Austria the current government is hesitating again to reform the smoking law, in part  because no one knows what will be decided in Brussels. The country revised its law in 2004 containing many ambiguities – many felt deliberately – leaving restaurant owners puzzled, but also suggesting that no serious changes were required. The issue could be postponed to some later date. However, without a clearer law, many say they are not sure whether to invest in the needed remodeling, to declare themselves a non smoking restaurant or install air filters and separate their seating areas. Those who did remodel complain that their high-priced renovations may turn out to have been for nothing, if in a few years a possible general ban is passed.

Assuming that everyone agrees on the negative health effects caused by smoking, Austrian society is very much longing for a fast governmental decision in either direction because they want clarity. The ORF discussion "Im Zentrum" supported this wish as everyone of the attendees asked for quick action.  The debate here is evident on two levels. Once, the owners of restaurants and bars want to know what to do because if nothing is clear this might cause economical downturns on their business because of fewer guests. Taking the Austrian café culture as an example a smoke free café Havelka or café Landtmann are not imaginable, when they have around 60% regular smoking guests. The second one is on a personal level that people don’t want Brussels to tell them what to do or what not to do. I strongly believe that people should be able to decide for themselves and thus the reform of the smoking laws should be the country’s own responsibility.

The Austrian government should draft a fast conclusion sooner than later because it is in their interest to represent its people and not wait from Brussels on a hint what to do or not.

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    the vienna review June 2010

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