Letter from Prague The (smoker’s) lungs of Europe
The Czech Republic today remains Europe’s only nation which does not restrict smoking in pubs, bars, cafés and other establishments. The government is pushing to change this, with the Czech Parliament soon due to vote on a comprehensive smoking ban. But despite strong public support, the initiative may run aground over opposition against the bill among lawmakers.
The last attempt to regulate smoking in pubs and restaurants came two years ago. But what was conceived as a comprehensive anti-smoking ban was butchered in the lower house. The only practical outcome was that restaurants now have to have a sticker on the door telling patrons whether they are smoking or non-smoking, or, most commonly, whether a separate area for non-smokers is provided.
In some European countries such as Finland, the Netherlands and Belgium, proprietors may choose to provide a room for smokers where there is no service to protect the staff. The new draft legislation, which should be discussed by the government in June, goes even further. It wants to prohibit smoking in all eating and drinking establishments, and the ban also includes electronic cigarettes and water pipes.
But anti-smoking advocates warn that the latest effort by the Health Ministry to ban smoking in restaurants is likely to meet with a similar fate. The news website aktualne.cz did a survey among MPs, asking them whether they would support the bill. The results confirmed their fears: only 79 out of 200 deputies would vote in favour of the ban. Among those opposing the bill are interestingly members of the lower house’s budget and economy committee which has a big say in allocating tobacco taxes.
All this is happening despite overwhelming public support for the ban. In a poll conducted in January, 78 percent of those who took part said they were in favour. Many establishments have in fact become smoke-free of their own accord over the past couple of years, accommodating public demand.
So why exactly is introducing a smoking ban so difficult in the Czech Republic although it works in the rest of the EU? Some observers, such as leading Czech tobacco addictologist Eva Králíková blame the tobacco industry and its effective lobbying among politicians. When the Czech branch of Philip Morris opened a new plant in 2010, then president Václav Klaus cut the ribbon – despite the fact that unlike his successor in office, Miloš Zeman, Mr Klaus himself is a fierce non-smoker.
Some opponents of the ban also argue it would diminish human freedom and restrict people’s choices. Others point to the alleged economic benefits of smoking; one MP said that while the country annually spent around six billion crowns on smoking-related health care, tax on tobacco brought around 55 billion crowns to the budget. These figures have been disputed by anti-smoking advocates but it will be MPs, rather than health care experts, who will vote on the bill.
And even Czech Health Minister Leoš Heger has admitted the prospects of the new legislation are not very good. In March, Mr Heger said he would consider it a sign of great progress if at least some parts of the bill actually come into force next year.