Clearing away the smoke

The Prague Post

Health, politics, economic concerns play into talks of a smoking ban

At the start of the new year, France and parts of Germany became the latest to join the smoking-ban trend that has recently swept through the European Union. Many new member countries, however, seem reluctant to sign on, including the Czech Republic.

Every once in a while, talk of a possible smoking ban begins to circulate, but nothing substantial ever seems to come of such discussions. But the issue is starting to gain momentum again and many advocates hope the threat to people’s health from smoking will finally motivate politicians to make some positives changes.

Smoking is practically an institution around these parts. In fact, some health reports claim as many as 50 Czechs a day die of smoking-related diseases. In 2004, statistics from the World Health Organization showed 25 percent of the country’s population above the age of 15 were daily smokers.

Boris Šťaštný, a Civic Democrat in the Chamber of Deputies, has made it his personal mission to get a comprehensive anti-smoking bill passed. He hopes to take this issue before Parliament sometime this month, but he could face some heavy opposition. President Václav Klaus recently came out against passing a smoking ban, saying he feared it would limit individual freedom.

Šťaštný knows he’s in for an uphill battle but feels a sense of duty to put a plug on the Czech Republic’s rising smoking-related death toll.

The fact that the country hasn’t managed to pass a smoking ban in restaurants and pubs “reflects the long-term attitude of political representation, across the political spectrum,” Šťaštný says.

He sees passing a smoking ban as a life-and-death matter and hopes to raise awareness around it.

“There are people who mistakenly mix preservation and support of freedom of individuals with the idea of an unjustified and unjustifiable requirement to harm other people’s health anywhere and at anytime without state regulations,” Šťaštný says.

Smoking among young people is a big problem here. A study released at the end of January by the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs found one in four 16-year-olds smoke at least one cigarette a day.

Statistics from the EU estimate about 79,000 adults from member countries die each year as a result of secondhand smoke. And data from the World Health Organization show that, in 2004, of every 100,000 deaths in the Czech Republic, 345 of those were smoking related. According to these reports, the home and the workplace are the main places where people are exposed to secondhand smoke.

While an EU-wide ban on smoking doesn’t exist, the body has passed some anti-smoking measures, including a 1989 recommendation that asked member states to take steps toward banning smoking in certain public places and on public transportation. A 2002 recommendation also suggested member states pass legislation to provide anti-smoking protections in the workplace.

In theory, what anti-smoking advocates are trying to accomplish is no doubt a worthy cause. However, some believe this issue could be addressed in another way.

“I think we should do everything we can to discourage young people from starting to smoke,” says Václav Stárek, general secretary of the Czech Association of Hotels and Restaurants. “We need to protect nonsmokers, but there are different ways to do that and strict restrictions don’t reflect the situation.”

Stárek points to what has happened in places like Ireland where smoking is banned in all restaurants and bars.

“Smokers are pushed out onto the street. It’s a worse example for the young people,” he says. “Some people may stop smoking [if there’s a restaurant ban], but many won’t. It creates a society where people gather to smoke. It encourages smoking.”

He doesn’t think the Czech Republic should base its laws on what neighboring countries have done. In Ireland and Scotland, for example, there’s a comprehensive ban on smoking in all enclosed public places. Italy, Sweden and Malta have general bans with exemptions that allow employers to install smoking rooms with separate ventilation. Many other European countries have opted for a ban on smoking in all enclosed public places and workplaces but have placed only partial restrictions on the hospitality sector. This is the model Stárek would like to see adopted here.

His association likes the idea that would allow small properties — based on square meters — to decide if they want to be nonsmoking establishments or not but would also require them to post signs letting patrons know whether smoking is allowed there.

“Bigger restaurants should have a separate area,” Stárek adds.

Šťaštný, on the other hand, doesn’t think that is enough. He points out that there have been laws to protect nonsmokers in effect since 2005, but says they are not very strict. Others are simply not enforced, such as the ban against smoking at all tram and bus stops. Šťaštný submitted amendments to these measures to Parliament in February 2007 and considers it a success that they survived a first reading without being killed.

Šťaštný’s proposed changes include clearly defining the terminology in the current laws and adding new wording to ensure there is no uncertainty about applying and enforcing the regulations. The changes would include health warnings about the dangers of smoking at places where smoking bans are posted. Giving more power to sanctioning and enforcing bodies to ensure the laws are being followed are other points he’d like to see. And, of course, restricting smoking in restaurants.

“The changes include a complete ban on smoking in all type of restaurant facilities, which represents a current trend,” he says. “This is a justified call for the protection of people’s health against the negative impacts of passive smoking. It is a kind of regulation which will, sooner or later, become standard in all developed countries.”

Economic reasoning plays into the discussion as well.

“The government, on one side, takes money from tobacco and, on the other side, makes life difficult for smokers,” Stárek says.

Even the EU recognizes the contradictory nature of the situation. Although smoking — both passive and active — leads to increased healthcare costs and sick leave, a reduction in smoking would also lead to job losses in the tobacco industry and a loss in government revenue from tobacco taxes, politicians point out. However, the EU also maintains that a drop in smoking would increase economic spending in personal households as residents would no longer be purchasing cigarettes. Stárek would like to see a market-based approach.

“I really believe if there is demand for nonsmoking restaurants, they will come,” he says. “Smoking has no future, but we have to address it realistically.”

He points to the increase in nonsmoking guest rooms, and even entire floors, at hotels, a response to guest demands. A smoking ban for restaurants, however, might prove a more difficult sell.

“It’s not only the fact of having special ventilation,” Stárek says. “Existing restaurants in historic buildings [may not be able to make alterations based on preservation laws], or restaurants that are only one room — they would have to divide into two parts. It’s better to let the owner decide if he wants to be nonsmoking.”

Meanwhile, Šťaštný’s next step is to convince his colleagues in Parliament to support the third reading of his proposed changes, and then to take his bill before the Senate. He feels the momentum is on the rise.

“I have talked to many of my colleagues and I feel their growing support and some development in their way of thinking,” he says.