Greeks smoke in defiance of ban

12/03/2010

The Greek government's attempt to ban smoking in public is being widely ignored. While the law is in line with EU recommendations, the business community argues that the economy is bad enough without hassling paying customers.

By Maria Paravantes for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 12/03/10

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With as many as 20,000 Greeks dying each year from tobacco-related diseases, the country banned smoking in public places. But compliance is an issue. [Getty Images]

It was a bustling Friday night in one of Athens' hottest music clubs, where groups of friends came in for fun after the busy week. As soon as they settled in, the men and women pulled out their cigarettes and realised there were no ashtrays on the tables.

"No smoking," said the waitress taking their order. "Maybe later..."

Twenty minutes later, the 500 or so people in the club were smoking up a storm, tossing their ashes on the floor.

A Greek law passed in July 2009 banned smoking in public places, increased taxes on cigarettes and imposed fines of up to 500 euros for violations. But it has not had any noticeable impact on public smoking.

Said one bar employee, "Just one look around and you'll see that no one is obeying this law ... you see restaurants with their non-smoking areas totally empty and the smoking area packed with tables moved from the non-smoking area to accommodate clients."

According to health ministry data, an estimated 20,000 of Greece's population of 11 million die each year from tobacco-related ailments. Another 600 die from second-hand smoke, or breathing air fouled by a nearby smoker.

"Smoking wipes out national health systems," Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou said recently, just ahead of a campaign to raise awareness in schools -- particularly among adolescents -- of the dangers of smoking. Last year, for the first time, the Greek Supreme Court ruled in favour of a plaintiff who sued his employer for damage as a result of second-hand smoke.

Surveys show that more than 38% of all Greeks smoke, which puts the country at the top of European countries. Health ministry data shows that 46% of adult males and more than 31% of adult females smoke daily.

"The whole country is smoking," Panagiotis Behrakis, director of the National Steering Committee for Tobacco Control, told the Kathimerini daily last month.

According to Greek legislation, companies with more than 50 employees can maintain designated smoking rooms. Restaurants, bars, cafes and clubs with the space over 70 square metres must have sealed-off smoking areas.

Smaller establishments can choose for themselves whether to be smoke-free, while larger places (over 300m2) must have separate enclosed smoking rooms with special ventilation systems.

"Our bar is a smoking joint," said a barmaid named Popi who did not want her full name used. "There's no way any business owner will turn his establishment into a non-smoking venue. He will definitely lose clients."

Not everyone shares that view. Helen H, the mother of a 1-year-old, spent hours in various malls in Athens to find a restaurant for her son with a non-smoking area. She found that restaurants that used to have such areas have abandoned them.

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"It's especially difficult in winter for someone with a child, a pregnant woman or even a non-smoker to have a choice," said Helen.

Bar and club owners in the Greek capital believe the smoking ban has made business worse amid the financial crises. Even those who applied for a smoking licence have encountered cumbersome bureaucracy in processing their applications.

The law also bans smoking in hospitals, offices and taxis, but one is inevitably bound to come across a taxi driver with a cigarette.

"I hailed a cab the other day only to find myself sitting in a cloud of smoke," said a non-smoker named Mary. "The irony of it all was a no smoking sign on the dashboard."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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