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While Britain becomes the latest European country to prohibit smoking in public places, Germany seems adamant about clinging to the unhealthy habit.
Germany: a smoker's paradise in Europe?
British lawmakers voted by a huge margin this week to ban smoking in pubs, restaurants, factories and other indoor public spaces in England. Spain kicked off the New Year by partially kicking the habit: Smoking is now prohibited in enclosed areas such as food shops and workplaces. Over the past few years, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Malta and Sweden have also banned smoking in public places.
Smoking is a no-no in pubs
In Britain, one out of every four adults smokes -- half as many as three decades ago. Britain was also a pioneer in the 1980s in requiring warning labels on cigarettes packages. According to the AFP news agency, a near-end 2005 survey showed that 70 percent of Britons welcomed the public smoking ban.
Smoking under siege?
As in Britain, the number of smokers in most European countries has been steadily declining for years. Still, diseases resulting from tobacco use claim the lives of more than 600,000 people on the continent annually.
No smoking in Madrid's subway
But new laws to ban the habit and improve public health are not welcomed everywhere. In Spain -- Europe's second largest consumer of tobacco -- is having a tough time enforcing the ban. Many of Madrid's smaller bars have the option of permitting smoking, or prohibiting it throughout. Most bars still opt for allowing smoking. Spanish laws require only bars and restaurants larger than 100 square meters to have non-smoking areas.
Some employers, however, are taking the hard-core approach. El Mundo newspaper employees caught breaking the smoking ban at the workplace, for instance, risk a fine of 30 euros. A repeat offense, however, could cost a staggering 10,000 euros.
Bad habits die hard in Germany
Whereas the rest of the continent seems to be making at least some headway against smokers, Germany is still a relative haven for those who like to light up. Why, in an otherwise relatively health and environment-conscious country, is Germany still indulging its smokers, even though smoking is a habit that the European Commission has called "the single largest cause of avoidable death in the European Union?"
The temptation to smoke is great for some
Even France, which has not yet imposed a nation-wide ban on public smoking, enforces a ban on it in most forms of public transportion and in offices. In contrast, Germany permits smoking in workplaces, unless a non-smoking employee protests. Pressure from smoking colleagues, however, makes it hard for non-smokers to speak up.
Germany still in the smoke-filled Dark Ages?
A legal ban on smoking in public buildings and restaurants in Germany does not appear to be on the horizon, even though smoking kills 110,000 to 140,000 people each year in the nation. Passive smoke also puts non-smokers at risk of lung cancer and narrowing of the arteries, among other things.
A recent study by the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg showed at least nine people die every day in Germany due to passive smoke-related diseases. That translates into more than 3,300 a year.
The government prefers to rely on campaigns encouraging people to voluntarily refrain from smoking. However, health economics expert Karl Lauterbach of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) believes German restaurants, for example, will never install non-smoking areas unless they are required to do so by law: "I don't believe in a million years that restaurants will create smoking and non-smoking areas of their own accord," he said.
To regulate or not to regulate?
The German Hotel and Restaurant Association has told the German Ministry for Health that its restaurant owner-members will create smoking and non-smoking areas in their eateries by March 2008. The association is expected to present a progress report to the German government this March.
Maria Eichhorn, Drug Commissioner for the Christian Democrats parliamentary party, wants to wait out the results of the restaurants' self-imposed smoking regulations. If that doesn't work, then "non-smoking bans must be put in place by law," she said.
Restaurant owners have often argued in the past that a smoking ban would result in few visitors. However, the Irish Restaurant Association found that the amount of business remained the same even after smoking was prohibited in public places in the country.
Strong tobacco lobby
Perhaps one reason German politicians are reluctant to introduce non-smoking laws is due to the possible power tobacco company lobbyists may hold over them. According to the newspaper Berliner Zeitung, tobacco giant Philip Morris sponsors food and drink at every party convention in Germany. Tobacco companies pay for political parties' election posters and special evening functions, the paper recently wrote. Lobbyists also "work" politicians, arguing that it is not in the best interest of the country if the 14.4 billion euros (in 2005 alone) drawn in by taxes on tobacco were to fall away.
On the other hand, experts estimate that smoking and its (health) consequences costs the national economy 50 million euros annually.
A rebellious Germany
Germany has also been defiant compared to its European neighbors when it comes to prohibiting tobacco advertising. In 2003, the European Parliament passed a directive banning tobacco advertising in print media, on the radio and the Internet. At the beginning of this month, the European Commission said it would take action against Germany (and Luxembourg) for failing to implement the directive.
European Commission campaign against smoking
Sabine Bätzing, of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and current Drug Commissioner at the Ministry for Health and Social Security, is one German politician who is intent on seeing her anti-smoking campaign through. She told Mainz's Allgemeine Zeitung in December 2005 that she wants to see non-smokers become "mainstream" in German society.
"I would like people to not have to apologize for not being a smoker," she told the newspaper. "We're working on a project called 'A Smoke-Free Society' and on other projects to stop smoking in hospitals and schools," she said.
Bätzing said prevention is the best method to keep young people from picking up the habit. She stressed, however, that something must change in the minds of Germans before not smoking becomes public policy. Bätzing has also announced an anti-smoking campaign to be installed in stadiums hosting World Cup games this summer.