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09 June 2023

Cigarettes still burning despite Austrian ban

Smoking bans have proven to be unpopular in European countries like Austria. (AFP)

Cafe owners and patrons in Austria are still puffing away seven weeks after a partial smoking ban was introduced, and they are not about to stop.

"Why not turn this place into a hospital, while we're at it?" asks Georg Hold, one of many Viennese "Kaffeehaus" owners now up in arms against the new legislation, which was introduced on January 1.

Smoking bans have been distinctly unpopular and hard to enforce in a country where, according to the World Health Organisation, no less than 47 per cent of the population smokes, and each consumer burns through an average 2,073 cigarettes per year.

A first attempt in January 2008 to curb smoking in restaurants and bars on a voluntary basis failed miserably.

Inspired by other European countries, parliament then voted in July a new law, which however still falls short of a full ban.

"This law is a compromise between the gastronomy industry and the government," Walter Piller, chairman of the gastronomy branch of Vienna's chamber of commerce, told AFP.

Under the new regulations, all establishments over 80 square metres (860 square feet) in size must provide a no-smoking section.

But they have until July 1, 2010 to install partitions.

"This is still a smoking place, for now, but changes are in the works for July 1, 2010," says the manager of the Kunsthallencafe, Eva Szaga-Doktor.

Meanwhile, all cafes and bars smaller than 50 square metres can choose whether to be smoking or non-smoking.

"Ninety per cent of my customers are smokers so I've chosen my camp: this will remain a cafe for smokers," says Hold, as he serves regulars from behind the bar at the eponymous Cafe Hold.

Of the fifteen or so clients enjoying a morning coffee or drink in this square room with a high ceiling, about three quarters are puffing away at a lit cigarette.

"When I drink my Melange (Viennese coffee with a dash of milk), I have to smoke a cigarette... it's part of the mood," says Katarina, one of the regulars.

For establishments between 50 and 80 square metres in size, the authorities will determine which category they fall into and whether they must provide a no-smoking section or not.

For now, the chamber of commerce is rather satisfied with the new regulations.

"We've inspected about a hundred establishments and they're complying," says Piller.

Information about the new ban was well distributed, "but it arrived a little late," notes Hold, referring to the short period that passed between parliament's decision and the ban entering into force.

Local authorities are in charge of enforcing the ban in each of Austria's nine provinces but with some 2,000 bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants in Vienna alone – many of them small – checks are not always easy to carry out.

According to Piller, 80 complaints have already been filed in Vienna but no fine has yet been given. These can go up to €10,000 ($13,040; Dh47,987) for owners who fail to respect the ban and €100 for customers.

But for the Kunsthallencafe, this is not an option.

"Our lawyers are prepared to fight back," says Szaga-Doktor. 

Meanwhile in Graz, in the southern province of Styria, inspections in 30 cafes showed them all to be in violation of the ban.

The fear among many is that a total smoking ban imposed by Brussels for the entire European Union will soon replace the Austrian law.

"What if we start making alterations and they fail to conform with European measures? What will we do then?" asks Szaga-Doktor.

Notes Hold: "A European law? I'm waiting for it."

"How long till it's forbidden to drink alcohol in bars?" he adds sarcastically.