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Greece cracks down on smokers

Greek smokers will be forced to curb their habit as Athens tries to enforce a blanket ban on smoking in public places as of September 1. Yet restaurant owners have vowed to resist.

Cigarette stubbs

"Stub out your cigarettes, add to your life," is Athen's slogan

Greece on Wednesday imposed a ban on smoking in all enclosed public places. Offenders will be liable to fines from 50 to 500 euros ($64 to $640) while restaurant owners risk penalties of up to 10,000 euros. Furthermore, outdoor tobacco advertising will also be banned.

It's the second attempt to curb smoking in the EU's most nicotine-addicted nation. In July 2009 smoking was banned in some public places but the measure was never fully implemented and eventually was dropped. Almost 45 percent of Greeks smoke compared to an EU average of 29 percent.

This time the government said it would enforce the ban, which Prime Minister George Papandreou said would "contribute to our goals of making the country more viable, not only economically, but in daily life."

The Health Ministry has said the new measure could save the lives of up to 20,000 Greeks who die every year from smoking, costing Athens as much as 2.14 billion euros each year.

Resistance from EU's heaviest smokers

Man, smoking

Some 40 percent of Greeks are going through an average of eight cigarettes per day

The ban is highly controversial in a country where smoking is still a traditional pastime in bars, restaurants and offices. Cafe and restaurant owners are worried about losing customers and have threatened to ignore the law.

"If we really comply with the new law, we'll have to close," Dimitris Arvanitis told Deutsche Welle. He runs a Vienna-style cafe in an alternative neighborhood of Athens. It's a traditional meeting point for the city's bohemian society.

"So we refuse to comply and we say to the government: If you insist on a tough smoking ban, then we give up, you can have our licenses, but in this case you will also have to find new jobs for the hundreds of people working for us today," added Arvanitis.

Over 90 percent of his customers are heavy smokers and that's why Arvanitis, who's a chain smoker himself, fears that a blanket ban will drive him out of business. He believes every cafe owner should be allowed to choose the smoking policy that best suits his needs.

But under the current ban only casinos and large music halls have been granted a six-month extension. Normal restaurants and bars even face loosing their license should they repeatedly ignore the ban.

Skeleton toy with a cigarette

Athens says about 20,000 die every year from smoking

A burden on health and economy

Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and other EU states have already introduced public smoking bans, and the numbers of smokers are declining. In Greece, the number has risen by 10 percent in the last decade.

"Smoking is a huge burden on our economy," Panayotis Behrakis, medical professor and head of the Greek Coordinating Committee Against Smoking, told Deutsche Welle. He warns that, especially in times of crisis, the government needs to reduce public expenses, including health care costs for smokers.

"I would go so far as to say that it's one of the reasons for today's debt crisis, considering that our total cost of caring for people with health problems caused by smoking is estimated at two billion euros per year. So if we are serious about tackling the crisis, we'll have to remedy the problem of rising health care costs as well," he adds.

The new measures will be enforced by special inspectors and local police.

According to recent surveys, seven out of 10 Greeks support a blanket ban, while over 90 percent of non-smokers consider the measures positive.

Author: Andreas Illmer/Jannis Papadimitriou, Athens (dpa/AFP)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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