While many European leaders are concerned about healthcare costs related to smoking, the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, opposes curbs on the habit. Indeed, on a visit to the country’s biggest cigarette factory on Wednesday, he made an unlikely recommendation with regard to starting to smoke. But an anti-smoking campaigner says his views have no place in the modern world.
The outspoken Czech president makes no secret of his vices. A heavy drinker and long-term chain smoker, he only curbed his consumption of alcohol and cigarettes after has was recently diagnosed with diabetes.
Mr Zeman opposes a Europe-wide trend toward regulating smoking, which he says would threaten jobs at a large Philip Morris cigarette plant in the Central Bohemian town of Kutná Hora. On a visit to the factory on Wednesday, Mr Zeman – who is known for his biting wit – made an unusual recommendation to the assembled employees.
“I myself only started smoking when I was 27 years old when my body had fully developed, and tobacco could no longer harm it. So let me recommend your children to do the same: wait until the age of 27, and then smoke without any risk whatsoever.”
While the workers applauded, not everybody appreciated Mr Zeman’s unorthodox view. The Czech Republic has one of the highest levels of adolescent smoking in Europe, with around 25 percent of 15-year-old boys and girls lighting up at least once a week. Eva Králíková is a leading Czech expert on smoking-related illnesses. She says the president should weigh his words.
“Even as a joke, it’s not very fortunate. Such a joke was maybe acceptable in the 1950s but not in the 21st century. It’s like recommending you start inhaling exhaust gases after you are 27. We know that every cigarette does damage and there is no safe dose of tobacco. It looks like Philip Morris hires Czech presidents because the previous one visited them as well.”
During his visit to the cigarette plant, the president reiterated his objections to the EU’s anti-smoking efforts, saying that regulating tobacco consumption would only increase the illegal cross-border trade in cigarettes.
The Czech president himself lobbied for the tobacco industry on his trip to Brussels last month. At a meeting with the speaker of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, he said MEPs should approve a more liberal version of the EU’s anti-tobacco measures. In the end that is what happened, to the president’s delight.
The Czech Republic remains one of few EU countries to still allow smoking in restaurants and other public places. Despite relatively high numbers of smokers in the country, however, the vast majority of Czechs are in favour of such a ban. Eva Králíková blames its absence on the tobacco lobby.
“About 80 percent of Czechs would prefer non-smoking restaurants but we still don’t have them. So this is another instance where we can see [the effects of] tobacco industry lobbying, to say it politely.”