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Greek smoking ban prompts smokers and tavern owners to claim human rights violations.

Greek smoking ban prompts smokers and tavern owners to claim human rights violations

Already reeling from financial crisis, the September smoking ban in Greece has created financial losses to bar and pub owners. They claim the laws are not clear and create confusion. Tavern owners claim violations of their professional and personal freedoms.

THE GREEK government speaks with a forked tongue regarding it public place smoking bans, claim its critics: on the one hand it legislates restrictions but on the other it turns a blind eye to violations.

On September 1, Greece introduced a blanket ban on smoking in all indoor public places. The ban applies both to work and recreational venues, and there are no special smoking area options, as are permitted in some European countries.

The exception will be casinos and recreational venues bigger than 300 square metres where live music is played. However, a full ban in these premises will come into effect in June 2011. Smokers breaking the ban can expect fines as high as EUR 500, while companies allowing smoking in their venues can be fined up to EUR 10,000.

Given Greece is in the midst of a punishing financial crisis and public spending austerity plan, Greeks could be forgiven for arguing this is a bad time to make life difficult for smokers.

In Athens, traditional Greek taverns are plastered with no smoking signs. But when Tobacco Journal International visited one, most customers and the owner smoked unconcerned. "Everyone does it," said the owner. "If I am fined I'll pay and then I'll stop. You know, when they ring me to book a table, they ask me if they can smoke, if I say no they do not book, what can I do?"

This weak enforcement prompted 150 owners of bars, restaurants, cafeterias, discos and other establishments from across Greece, together with the Panhellenic Association of Restaurant Owners in October to ask the Council of State--the country's highest judicial authority--to cancel the government's anti-smoking legislation and allow them "to return the ashtrays to the tables".

Human rights issue?

The ban, they claim: adversely affects businesses; contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights; precludes the free access of smokers to their premises; discriminates between smokers and non-smokers; and violates principles under Greek law of constitutional equality. Moreover, it has led to a drop in clientele in some cases of 70-90 per cent; imposed a restriction of professional freedom; and has reduced turnover and profit margins during a financial crisis with successive increases in taxes, goods and services.

However, health campaigners remain unbowed: when the ban was imposed, Prof Panagiotis Behrakis, a health campaigner and president of the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention said it was a new day in the effort "to save the lives of 20,000 people lost every year."

And the government is sticking to its guns. Health minister Andreas Loverdos admitted on November 18 the ban is not currently effective and the government needs to initiate new measures because "the state is ridiculed" by non-compliance. He will reassess and maybe reform the law which now "needs to be applied with logic." On November 30, the health ministry said it intends to intensify inspections and reported over 500 fines already issued to violators.

Meanwhile, on October 27, the health ministry agreed to provide prescription stop-smoking medication to patients suffering from cardiovascular problems, chronic pulmonary deficiency and sugar diabetes, so long as they follow a detoxification programme at a national hospital and assume 25 per cent of the cost.

This tightening of the noose is not widely popular. An Athens cafeteria owner exhibiting a fine notification for EUR 600 said: "I pay EUR 22,000 a month rent so perhaps the authorities can tell me how to make that money by telling smokers not to come in." Deputy health minister Michalis Timosidis admitted inspection has not reached the desired level. Meanwhile the ministry's public health top official Antonis Dimopoulos said legislation will be presented to parliament shortly banning smoking in cars with passengers under 12. He also said the first Panhellenic Conference on Smoking Control was to take place December 2-4 at the ministry.

Has the ban reduced smoking?

A recent post-ban study released by Prof Behrakis claims the public smoking ban is being widely flouted in restaurants, with 43 per cent of restaurateurs telling researchers some clients had smoked in the last month. And while 63 per cent of people agreed with the ban on bars, clubs and cafes, only 17 per cent declared they would protest to the manager if a fellow client smoked; 11 per cent would complain to the smoker and only one per cent would call the authorities.

With such weak support, one Athens bar owner predicted: "The ashtrays are coming back in Europe," with his triumphant claim accompanied by long-dead Greek singing star Stelios Kazantzidis' song 'my entire life is just a cigarette.'

In essence

Government to step up enforcement with new public smoking ban being widely flouted. Witnesses in favour of the ban unwilling to report violations, as law not enforced. Bar owners hope the ban will be lifted.

Makki Marseilles
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Author:Marseilles, Makki
Publication:International News
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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