Spain's legions of smokers were facing a tough New Year on Sunday as strict new laws banning smoking in public places came into force, abruptly reversing the nation's traditional tobacco-friendly attitude.
Smokers are left in the cold in Spain
Spaniards, the heaviest smokers in Europe apart from the Greeks, will no longer be able to light up in a huge range of public spaces, including food shops, many bars and restaurants and all workplaces.
Even those working in their own separate offices would not be permitted a cigarette, Health Minister Elena Salgado explained on Sunday, "so as to avoid any distinction between people in high-up jobs and those further down the hierarchy".
Millions of signs reading "Prohibido Fumar," or "No Smoking," have sprung up in work places, bars and restaurants and public buildings around the country, which first imported the tobacco habit into Europe 500 years ago.
At the same time, curbs on the advertising and sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products have been introduced.
Spain's 40 million people on average consume 2,300 cigarettes a year. That is 850 more than the European average. And smoking kills 50,000 people a year in Spain, 16 percent of all deaths among those aged more than 35, according to the Ministry of Health.
Such drastic steps were needed in Spain because unlike its European neighbors, the country had no previous laws curbing tobacco use, Salgado was quoted as saying by the Europa news agency.
The new campaign aims to save thousands of lives
Thus, the move towards anti-smoking laws "has been faster (in Spain) than seen in other countries", Salgado said, while predicting that conflicts over the new laws would be "minimal."
Given polls showing an approval rate for the smoking laws of 77 percent, they would be "respected by everyone," the health minister said, including the estimated 8-10 million smokers among Spain's 44 million population.
Smoking is now banned in bars and restaurants larger than 100 square meters (1,070 square feet) except in special sections, which may not occupy more than 30 percent of the total space.
Bars and restaurants smaller than 100 square meters can opt to be smoking or non-smoking but have to say clearly which they are.
Smoking areas can also be set aside in other establishments, including hotels, prisons, airports, stations and ports.
Sweden and other EU countries have already instituted bans
Initial signs were that the ban was taking time to be respected -- on Sunday morning a handful of smokers could still be seen on Madrid's metro, which stayed open all night for the New Year, despite the threat of fines ranging from 30 euros to a whopping 600,000 euros (35 to 710,000 dollars).
But some are pleased with the measure.
"I like it,'' Antonio Rios, a 25-year-old computer services worker in Madrid told Bloomberg. "Having to stand in the cold will make me smoke less.''
Belgium also implemented new smoking restrictions. Both join a growing list of European countries such as Ireland, Italy and Sweden who are trying to curb smoking as European governments try to reduce the cost of treating tobacco-related diseases.
Great Britain is also going to introduce a ban on public smoking in 2007. France is considering similar measures.