The Czech Republic is dominated by smokers. This is a line that you've surely heard me repeat time and again in the seven years that I've been here at Radio Prague. But an incident that I witnessed recently has made me reconsider. There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for me - a staunch non-smoker!
I was walking along the river Vltava one afternoon when I noticed three officers sitting in a police car. Something - or someone - must have caught their attention as they completely ignored a fight going on across the street. I followed their gaze and noticed that they were looking at two middle-aged men who were innocently chatting away but also smoking at a nearby tram stop. Then a tram came by in the opposite direction and two police officers got out and appeared. As soon as they were spotted by their colleagues in the car, their attention was drawn to the men at the tram stop. A minute later they had put out their cigarettes and paid a fine, without discussion!
Last week, I was having lunch at a restaurant when a woman stood up and kindly asked the man at the next table to stop smoking. And he did.
Times are changing in the Czech Republic thanks to a law that came into effect on January 1, prohibiting smoking in some public spaces.
But the law has its opponents. Some smokers say totalitarianism is back in full swing with the state dictating to its citizens what they can and cannot do. Others complain that it is unclear where exactly tram or bus stops end and officers have been abusing this. The police themselves say they have been given more work, while the number of officers on patrol has remained the same.
But apparently, public transport officials have also taken up the fight against smoking. A group of young women have reported that a bus driver refused to sell them tickets because he had seen them smoke at the bus stop. He even went as far as to turn off the engine of the bus and demand they get out or else face the police. So, the women chose to get off the bus.
Though the new law isn't perfect it seems to be bringing quite a bit of money into state coffers. Since it came into effect, a total of 750,000 crowns in fines was collected by the police in Prague alone. That's around 33,500 US dollars. On average, some 1,500 smokers are caught breaking regulations every month.
But the Civic Democratic Party, which has been one of the biggest opponents to the law, has just won the general elections. It argues that a law which bans people from smoking outside infringes on citizens' basic rights and freedoms. The Civic Democrats are currently in talks on forming a new centre-right government. So, for non-smokers like me, it may be too early to rejoice.
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