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Europe moves slowly towards public place-smoking bans and EU compulsory legislation is unlikely.

JUST six years ago, in March 2004, Ireland was the first country in the world to impose an outright ban on smoking in workplaces. A lot of European governments have followed its lead though Ireland (plus the UK and, surprisingly, Turkey) remain the only countries in Europe where the ban is total--that is it applies to smoking in all enclosed public and workplaces without exceptions.

Are such bans effective in deterring people from smoking? Before they were introduced, many people assumed that they would simply encourage smokers to do more smoking at home and would not affect overall levels of tobacco consumption. "They've been proved completely wrong," said Archie Turnbull, president of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), which campaigns against tobacco use. "We've seen a reduction in smoking in all of the countries where there have been bans. And the more complete the ban, where they don't allow let-outs and so on, the more effective it is."

As Tobacco Journal International notes in its reports this week, the European Parliament has approved a resolution backing non-binding guidance to member states on toughening their policing of public place smoking bans. The resolution claims it "represents a coordinated effort towards a smoke-free Europe." The text, approved by the EP last November, "welcomes the comprehensive smoke-free laws already in place in several member states and encourages all member states to make rapid progress in introducing effective measures to protect their citizens from exposure to tobacco smoke in all enclosed workplaces and public places." Under the provisions of the resolution, mechanisms would be set up "to monitor progress towards smoke-free environments throughout the EU and facilitate the exchange of best practices and policy coordination."

So, we are likely to see more, not less regulation. Where do we stand at present? Ten EU countries (out of 27) have so far introduced public place smoking bans but not all are genuinely comprehensive. After the countries mentioned above "there are countries such as Italy, Malta, Sweden, Latvia, Finland, Slovenia. France and the Netherlands which have introduced smoking legislation which is extremely good," said Ms Florence Berteletti-Kemp, director of the Smoke Free Partnership, formed by Cancer Research UK, the European Heart Network, the European Respiratory Society and the Institut National du Cancer. These countries have introduced smoke-free areas but they allow for special enclosed smoking rooms in bars and restaurants. This sounds sensible--the in practical terms this is much easier said than done. "The conditions applying to these rooms make them extremely difficult for the owners to put them in place: no food or drink can be served by staff, for instance," said Ms Berteletti-Kemp. The rooms are so expensive to operate that few restaurant owners bother to install them, with the result that countries like France end up with a comprehensive ban little different from the UK's.

Other countries, and not just in Europe but elsewhere in the world, have followed the lead set by Spain which has paid lip-service to the idea of a smoke-free zone in recent years but has allowed so many exemptions for bars and restaurants that in practice few smokers are discouraged. This may change however. The Spanish ministry of health has said it wants to introduce a total ban and the question now is whether the government has the necessary parliamentary support to get it enacted.

The Europeam tobacco industry itself accepts bans but strongly favours exemptions. The UK's Tobacco Manufacturers' Association (TMA) said that "there is now an economic case for potential exemptions in order to achieve a more equitable approach to the issue of public place smoking." Christopher Ogden, TMA chief executive, recently drew attention to the recession and job losses in the hospitality sector. "We are not opposed to restrictions on smoking in public places. Smokers, however, should have available to them places where they may smoke without inconveniencing others. The majority of EU member states have achieved this and we hope that the UK government will do the same", he said.

The Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers (CECCM) said last year that its member companies "support a ban on smoking in enclosed work places and public places, with exemptions."

While exemptions may be justified in terms of local economic hardship or competition factors, they may serve in general to undermine smoking bans, according to health campaigners. Thus the European Network for Smoking Prevention (ENSP) says that on the basis of reports from several eminent tobacco control experts, "laws controlling tobacco smoke which are less than total with numerous exceptions fail to protect the health of citizens or change smoking behaviour."

Michael Forrest, communications officer, says from its point of view, the ENSP "sees a problem in all those countries which have partial bans which weakens the effect of the overall ban. The Spanish model is relevant here, where there are very many exceptions and this has led to a lot of gerrymandering, as in drinking establishments where you can smoke but in eating establishment, where you may not." He said that ideally the ban would be like those in Ireland and Britain "where there are no exceptions and it's a universal ban on smoking in public and shared spaces."

Elsewhere in the EU the introduction of smoke-free zones has proceeded by fits and starts. Greece has gone smoke-free in the past year but Poland has embraced smoking: in March the Polish Lower Chamber voted to liberalise tobacco control, rejecting the proposal of its health committee to introduce a total smoking ban in all enclosed public places. Bulgaria had been expected to introduce a total ban but there are now moves in the Parliament to reverse that. "Right now there aren't any countries ready to introduce a 100 per cent smoke-free legislation across Europe and we're stuck, for the moment, not making much progress," said health campaigner Ms Berteletti-Kemp.

But she noted that this was a very long-term campaign. "Smoke-free legislation brings about the "denormalisation" of tobacco. The effectiveness of this can only be measured over a very long period of time--30, 40, 50 years," she said. "Smoke-free legislation on its own can't achieve a drastic reduction, it needs to be accompanied by other measures such as an increase in price, graphic health warnings and an advertising ban," she said. But total smokefree legislation "is the cornerstone."

The crucial question raised by the widely varying smoking bans through the EU is, of course, whether there is an opening here for EU legislation aimed at harmonising different national policies, which seems to be at least partly implicit in the European Parliament resolution. But legislating regulations and directives that would force EU member states to install bans is fraught with difficulties. Some MEPs, even those strongly against smoking, do not see an EU role. "Smoking isn't a cross-border issue," said the British Liberal Democrat member Chris Davies. "Non smoking bans are a matter between citizens and their own governments. I'm not against smoking bans but I do not think we should be calling for binding legislation to apply to every member state."

The Smokefree Partnership takes the same view, for different reasons. "This is an issue we've been discussing since 2007 and our view is that a 100 per cent smoke-free ban should be introduced at national level and not at European level," said Ms Berteletti-Kemp. A smoking ban had to have the support of the public. "What we do know is that generally speaking most of the public in the EU member states do support a ban and that's easy to understand because most people do not smoke. In every country where the smoking bans have been introduced, they've been very popular. But there are a number of dangers in trying to introduce a total ban at EU level," she argued.

The first problem for health campaigners is that because of the legislative process "it's not necessarily the case that we would end up with a law that would be comprehensive." A directive had to go through the EP and the EU Council and could be subject to qualified majority voting where big countries like Germany and Poland who had not introduced smoke-free would fight very hard to liberalise an EU proposal.

The second was the standing of the EU itself--it was strongly doubtful for instance that the UK ban would have got through if it had come from Brussels.

Also, because of the complex international negotiations required, legislation at the EU level took 4 to 6 years to get through but national laws could be brought in faster.
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Author:Osborn, Alan
Publication:International News
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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