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Germany

Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt Sets Bad Example by Smoking

Nothing, it seems, can induce former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to quit smoking. Not even the new German law banning tobacco in public buildings. Anti-smoking advocates are not amused and are pressing charges.

Helmut and Loki Schmidt smoking

Helmut and Loki -- even their doctors tell them not to stop

"Anyone who doesn't read is an idiot," said former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in an interview for Die Zeit's weekly magazine LEBEN on Thursday, Jan. 24.

But however many books the very learned Schmidt might have read, he certainly doesn't seem to be good at reading Germany's new and very visible No Smoking signs.

His remark was issued the same week that prosecutors in Hamburg began investigating him for lighting up in the lobby of the Komödie Winterhuder Fährhaus theater just hours after the controversial smoking ban came into force on January 1.

Yet another controversy

Helmut Schmidt

Schmidt in the days when everyone smoked

Hailing from a time when cigarettes were easily the least pernicious of politicans' preferred poisons, Schmidt would never have predicted the impact a quick smoke could have in this health-conscious age.

But then the indomitable elder statesman of German politics was snapped by the mass circulation Bild newspaper blithely puffing away at a reception with his wife, childhood sweetheart Loki.

And before he knew it, he was at the heart of a controversy at least as divisive as his policies on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back in the late 1970s.

Bodily harm?

Bild has reported that the Schmidts might even face bodily harm charges. According to the German criminal code, "anyone who physically abuses someone else or damages their health can be given a suspended sentence of up to five years or be punished with a financial penalty."

In fact, Helmut Schmidt's recalcitrance is hardly a surprise. A dedicated smoker throughout his career, Schmidt is still seldom photographed without a cigarette even as he approaches his 90s. Interviews are generally conducted amid a thick cloud of smoke and changing public attitudes have done nothing to curb his enthusiasm.

Nicknamed Schmidt-Schnauze (Sassy Schmidt) for his sharp tongue and ready wit, the former politician famed for never following the crowd is the last person likely to give up a lifetime's habit simply because it has fallen out of fashion.

During his years in office between 1974 and 1982, Schmidt weathered political turbulence ranging from the international oil crisis to the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof era. Cigarette smoking never seemed to get in the way of his political duties.

Dismissal likely

Rüdiger Bagger, a prosecutions spokesman in Hamburg, confirmed the complaint had been received, but said the docket would be most likely be dismissed.

"Smoking is definitely damaging to the health, but there's no evidence Mr and Mrs Schmidt committed assault," he said.

Hamburg has already announced that its bylaws department will not start imposing misdemeanour fines on smokers till March, so the complaint seems unlikely to have any legal consequences.

Unpopular motion

Germany implemented the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants across most of the country on Jan. 1.

The new law has not gone down well in a nation long considered a smoker's haven. It has been suggested that the move has met with more resistance here than in other cigarette-loving nations such as France and Italy because of the long shadow cast by the country's past. One of Germany's most fervent anti-smokers was Hitler, who cracked down on the habit during the Third Reich.

In fact, the ban in Germany is more lenient than those imposed in other western European nations in recent years as restaurants in the country will be allowed to provide separate smoking rooms.

Bad example

A no-smoking sign

Still ignored by many

The case against the rebellious Schmidts was brought by anti-smoking activists in the western city of Wiesbaden.

"They were recklessly smoking in public and someone like Mr Schmidt should know better -- he is setting a very bad example, so we launched legal proceedings," activist Horst Keiser told Reuters.

"How can children and young people be expected to grasp that laws must be respected when even a statesman like Helmut Schmidt ignores them?"

Keiser said he wanted the Schmidts to be fined a few thousand euros and for the money to be donated to a children's charity. He also wanted them to stop smoking in public.

"A lot of people think, look at him, he's 89 and still going strong, how bad can smoking be," he added. "But no one realizes that in fact he's had four bypasses and has a pacemaker."

According to the Hamburger Morgenpost, however, Loki Schmidt says that she and her husband have no intention of quitting.

"Even our doctors have advised us against it," she maintains. "They say it would be too stressful for our bodies."

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