While nine European countries have already brought in comprehensive anti-smoking restrictions, Germany is one of those lagging behind.
Smokers can light up almost anywhere in Germany
In spite of increased taxes on tobacco and partial, voluntary smoking bans in restaurants and bars, Germany remains a smoker's paradise. Every day, Germans light up 386 million cigarettes in public buildings, office blocks, cafés and elsewhere. On billboards all over the country, the happy, smiling faces of smokers look down through the smog at puffing pedestrians.
Germany is bringing up the rear behind the countries that are leading the fight against smoking. Non-smokers are protected in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Italy, Macedonia, Malta, Norway, Spain and Sweden. In Germany, however, there are very few public places where non-smokers can escape the toxic fumes.
But there is a certain amount of desire for change. In February 1998, an anti-smoking initiative tried to exile smokers from hospitals, schools, bars, restaurants, discotheques and cinema lobbies. But, despite wide support from different parties, the plan failed due to opposition from members of the cabinet under then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Smoke clearing for opposition groups
German no-smoking groups want a ban like in Spain
However, health experts have not surrendered and now see a chance to get the ball rolling again in the campaign for a more widespread ban in Germany.
"To our knowledge, Chancellor Merkel is a non-smoker," Friedrich Wiebel, spokesman for the Non-Smokers Action Alliance, told the AP news agency recently. "Now we have a better chance."
The alliance is backed by a number of health organizations that aim to present a draft initiative that will lead to a ban on smoking inside public buildings.
The alliance is relying on the support of Health Minister Ulla Schmidt to expand the existing regulations in Germany. Under Schmidt's watch, the German government in 2005 reached a voluntary agreement with restaurant and bar proprietors for the creation of limited no-smoking areas in 30 percent of all licensed premises.
Partial ban to be extended
Bars and restaurants will have to give half their premises over to non-smokers
This partial smoking ban is scheduled to be extended to 90 percent of all bars and restaurants in Germany by March 1, 2008. By then, owners will be required to provide 50 percent of their premises for non-smokers.
On average, 3,300 people die each year from smoking related illnesses in Germany, a figure that has continually caused the medical community to call on the government to "break with the tobacco lobby" and make a concerted attempt at reversing the deadly trend.
Doctors' organizations have criticized the government for considering logical regulations like banning smoking in schools, hospitals and the workplace while still cozying up to the tobacco industry. Germany continues to allow widespread tobacco advertising despite a proposed EU-wide ban supported by almost all the bloc's members.
Germany steps up opposition to ad ban
In December, the German government complained for the second time against the proposed ban, the decision on which is expected to be announced in the summer of this year.
Until then, and until Germany comes into line with other EU nations on banning smoking, the country will remain a smoker's paradise.