Austria: One of Europe's last smoking havens

Vienna -- Vienna - city of Johann Strauss waltzes, culture, coffee houses - and stale cigarette smoke? Yes, indeed. A closer look at Austria`s bars and restaurants brings to light a controversial subject - smoking bans, both vehemently demanded and fiercely rejected.

Thick blue wafts of smoke settling in the discolouring curtains are almost de rigueur for Vienna`s old-established coffee houses. For many years the cigarette, symbol of intellectualism, rebellion or cool has been a steady accessory on the little marble tables of the country`s cafes.

Escape? Impossible. A non-smoking room? Well, there is a draughty little corner next to the bathrooms.

The Alpine republic is one of Europe`s last refuges for smokers, still resisting the widespread smoking bans introduced and discussed in other EU countries, and worlds apart from the US non-smoking culture.

In Western Europe very few countries have legislation as lenient as Austria`s, and in the new EU member states in the east smoking is far more tolerated.

Austria banned smoking in public buildings in 2005 - theoretically. Enforcement varies and is often not pursued with any kind of zeal, as can be easily observed when watching Austrians enthusiastically lighting up in local train stations, hospitals or schools.

Workplace bans for smoking are slowly taking hold, being observed by a majority of employers.

But while the local health authorities are making inroads banning smoking on the workplace or in public buildings, visiting an Austrian restaurant, bar or cafe is still a breathtaking experience.

Austria`s health ministry launched yet another campaign to improve the lot of Austria`s non-smokers, but is meeting with fierce resistance from restaurant and cafe owners. A deal struck between the Ministry and restaurant owners in 2005 says that by the end of 2006, 90 per cent of Austrian restaurants larger than 75 square metres must have separate non-smoking facilities. This deadline being almost over, non-smoking rooms are emerging only slowly in restaurants and cafes, while unrestricted inhaling continues happily in bars and clubs.

"Restaurants are not public buildings - people come here on their own accord," argues one Austrian restaurant owner, speaking for many of his colleagues.

Guenther Ferstl, cafe owner and representative of Vienna`s trade chamber, said general smoking bans would be a "catastrophe," ruining the business of hundreds of restaurants, cafes and bars.

Especially in Vienna, where coffee and cigarettes go together like ... well, coffee and cigarettes, the situation would be disastrous. "If I cannot have a cigarette with my coffee, I will not go in the cafe. Those two things are inseparable," Ferstl said.

Non-smoking coffee drinkers are forced to evacuate to Starbucks, one of the few smoke-free zones, but even there the first ashtrays were sighted.

Current regulations, demanding sufficient air condition systems to deal with the smoke are working well, Ferstl said. "Moreover, nobody is forced to go in a smoky place - if there is too much smoke you can go somewhere else," he said.

Also, Austria`s non-smokers are apparently a tolerant lot - if there were a market for non-smoking locations then more such places would open up, the pro-smoking faction argues.

"Some people create unnecessary panic," Ferstl said.

About 2.3 million of Austria`s 8.2 million inhabitants smoke. Each year around 14,000 Austrians die of lung cancer, mainly caused by smoking, while thousands of others succumb to cardiovascular diseases exacerbated by smoking.

Austrian health experts add that every day two to three people die of the effects of passive smoking. Otto Spanger, spokesman of an Austrian support group for lung disease patients, said Austria was a "developing country" in regard to non-smoker protection. Very worrying were not only the number of children smoking but also the general amount of nicotine in the air of "smoking paradise" Austria, he said.

Together with a number of leading Austrian medical experts he campaigns for a total ban in restaurants and significantly higher prices for cigarettes. Health experts demand rigorous smoking bans like those introduced in Italy or Ireland that proved to be very successful in curbing tobacco consumption.

Health Minister Maria Rauch-Kallath is slowly coming around to a stricter anti-smoking position. In November, she warned that stricter regulations would be discussed if the voluntary regulation was not put into practice.

Judging from the current situation a large number of cigarette butts will be swept down the river Danube until Austria`s health authorities are ready to antagonize smokers and the hospitality industry.

Until then, the country`s smokers will have some more breathing space.

Copyright © 2006