Public smoking ban in Europe gathers pace

Smoking could be banned in public places throughout Europe if a proposal by the European Union health commissioner and anti-tobacco "czar" David Byrne is adopted.

The former Irish Attorney-General turned Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection has already proposed a ban on smoking in the workplace.
Cue scenes of hyper-stressed city workers traumatised from the added strain of having to go out in 0 degrees Celsius and puff, huddled, in front of their office blocks.

But Mr Byrne's next proposal is more ambitious still and could make smoky bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants a thing of the past throughout the 15-member European Union.

The US has most likely been a source of inspiration for Mr Byrne’s proposals.

More than 100 US cities, most notably New York last year, have already banned smoking in their public areas.

The state of California has one of the strictest no-smoking policies in the world: no cigarettes in bars, restaurants, public buildings or public parks.

Two Californians who were travelling through Europe last year gasped as they watched a customer light up a cigarette in a restaurant.

“Are you people allowed to do that?” they asked bemused. The freedoms that we Europeans still enjoy.

Only coffee in cafés?

From midnight on New Year’s Eve the most potent accompaniments to a night out in Ireland were stubbed out for good.

Some 7,000 bars and restaurants across the Irish Republic became smoke-free zones.

Smokers will now be asked to leave bars or face eviction, fines and even arrest. Dublin smokers are stunned.

Stockholm, Toronto, Gstaad, or somewhere else clean, dull and wholesome, yes – but Dublin, famous over the world for its smoky bars?

The Netherlands is another example of a country that has drawn scorn and respect in equal measures the world over for its attitudes towards smoking.

Starting from next year no more smoking in Dutch public places, which would have the consequence that smoking in coffee shops would be prohibited as well.

Coffee shops, of course, are public places, too. Cue a dramatic decline in the number of "tourists" travelling to Amsterdam after it is introduced.

Lighten up?

"What’s wrong with a New York-style smoking ban?" you ask.

Well frankly: nothing, and everything.

On the one hand Mr Byrne makes a valid point in saying that no less than 500,000 Europeans die of tobacco-related diseases every year.

On the other hand there is the tricky issue of people’s freedoms being restricted, which does not go down too well with most of us at all.

In New York, the complete smoking ban in the city’s bars and restaurants has led to a dramatic fall in business as smokers drink less or stay away.

For New York’s besieged bar owners, mayor Michael Bloomberg has become public enemy number one.

“Bloomberg passed the legislation to protect bar staff from passive smoking,” says Cieran Staunton, owner of an Irish bar there.

“Now a lot of staff have clean air – but no jobs.”

Some New York bars and restaurants have already been forced to close.

Alonzo’s was one of the first to shut its doors as smokers from the nearby United Nations building, a large part of its lunch-time trade, stayed away.

Some bars even report a staggering 50 per cent drop in takings. The majority of bars report a 20-30 per cent fall-off in business. This could happen in Europe, too.

Tobacco companies would not be happy about a smoking ban either, but it would mean a reduction in legal action against tobacco giants.

This phenomenon was thought to have died off in the late 1990s following the collapse of high-profile test cases involving 52 chronically ill smokers, but it has re-emerged.

The GMB, Britain’s general union, has secured £50,000 in an out-of-court settlement for a London-based casino worker whose health had deteriorated as a result of working in a smoky environment.

The mounting litigation threat is one reason why Pizza Hut has banned smoking in all its 350 UK franchises.

The company said it was taking the action chiefly to prevent staff and customers being exposed to "passive smoking", but the anti-smoking lobby believes that Pizza Hut is merely ahead of the game.

“There will be a ban [on smoking in restaurants] – it’s just a question of time,” said Amanda Sandford, spokeswoman for ASH, Action on Smoking and Health.

Anti-social versus intolerant

It is no secret that smokers knowingly increase their risk of cancer and heart disease by smoking.

But nobody has the right to legally stop them - it is an inalienable and absolute right.

The British Government is arguing that bans on smoking in public places should be voluntary – a contradiction in terms.

If smokers would be susceptible to the demands of common sense and courtesy, they would not be blowing cigarette smoke into the faces of perfect non-smoking strangers.

There is little question it is antisocial behaviour. The difficulty is balancing a block against this with state-legalised intolerance?

“The American tobacco industry reports that it provides jobs for 57,000 Americans - not including physicians, X-ray technicians, nurses, hospital employees, fire-fighters, drycleaners, respiratory specialists, pharmacists, morticians, and gravediggers.

It is a bad email joke currently doing the rounds but it has a point.

The point of making it illegal to do something stupid, wasteful, tragic and utterly pointless that also harms innocent bystanders will surely prove to be much less of a joke to Europe's tobacco addicts.