Orderly Germans rebel against public smoking ban

In Europe, even the Italians and French are respecting public smoking bans, but Germany's bid to implement one is proving as relapse-prone as the New Year's resolutions of nicotine addicts, writes AFP's Emsie Ferreira.

Orderly Germans rebel against public smoking ban
Photo: DPA

A ban has been in force in most of the normally order-loving nation since January 1, the day cafes in France put away the ashtrays after more than a century of tobacco-stained bonhomie and smokers decamped to the pavement. That evening former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt was photographed lighting up at a Hamburg theatre and five months later the air has still not cleared.

Bars in Berlin have been granted a reprieve, restaurants in Bavaria have found a loophole by converting to private clubs and the state’s famed Oktoberfest will for now remain a smoking zone.

That decision was taken by Bavarian premier Günther Beckstein, who is due to fight state elections during the world’s biggest beer festival this year and openly worries that the ban will cost his conservatives votes.

In three other German states courts have watered down the new tobacco laws, ruling that in smaller pubs sparking up is legal again. “The smoking ban is a failure,” said Siggi Ermer, the chairman of the country’s biggest anti-tobacco lobby, Pro Rauchfrei. “It has not worked in the same way that it has in Italy, France or Britain. The difference is that there in each case you have a clear law that has put in place an absolute ban. Here we have a host of laws and major interpretation problems.”

A few years ago the government abandoned the fraught prospect of trying to enforce a federal ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. Instead it let the country’s 16 states write their own anti-tobacco laws.

“The government simply got cold feet,” said Martina Poetschke-Langer from the German Cancer Research Centre, who accuses politicians of being beholden to the tobacco industry with its history of sponsoring party conferences. “So we have 16 different laws and we have 100 exemptions on those laws. Which makes it fair to say that the exception has become the rule.”

The regional bans took effect piecemeal from late last year, when smoking on trains also became illegal.

On October 1, travellers going through Frankfurt international airport found that the smokers’ corner with its powerful extractor fan had been shut. But restaurants in the German banking capital have been allowed to open separate smoking areas and the cigarette ban unravels in downtown pubs as the night wears on.

The head of Frankfurt’s civil order office, Hasso Haas, said his staff has better things to do than chase smokers. “We are not the anti-smoking police. We do not patrol. If we receive a

complaint we will look into it, but no, we are not proactive. It is our interpretation of the law that we do not have to be, and I think our colleagues in other states see things the same way,” he told AFP.

Haas said his office instituted a period of grace and had only began issuing fines in March.

“Since then we have fined 25 pubs €280 ($440) each but nobody has paid up,” Haas said.

He predicted that before long the ban in bars would be relaxed throughout the country, where nearly one in three adults smoke. “I’ll bet that within a year we will see a nationwide liberalisation. There is massive resistance and you cannot have exceptions in some places and not in others, people find it unfair and defy the law.”

The revolt has been led by small pubs who say their earnings have dropped by a third and that one in ten may have to close. In the states of Saxony, Schlweswig-Holstein and Rhineland-Palatinate, courts have lifted the ban in single-room bars, provided the owners serve the drinks themselves and do not force staff to compromise their health.

Pro Rauchfrei’s Ermer says what is happening cannot be explained by economics or a lack of enforcement alone – one needs to understand the national psyche.

“Germans smoke with a vengeance. Nowhere else, not even in France or Italy, have I ever seen anything like it,” he said.

Andreas Hoehn, a historian having a pint at his local in Leipzig, found the ban patronising. “I don’t smoke but I think this is an attack on personal freedom. The state is treating adults like children.”

At “Frau Krause”, another bar in the eastern city, owner Sascha Pahnke agreed, saying: “It harks back to this typical German mania for regulating everything.”

The anti-tobacco lobby hopes that the German constitutional court, which is due to hear three challenges to the ban in June, will send lawmakers back to the drawing board.

“Maybe the court will say we need a proper federal ban, it has the power to do that. It’s our secret hope,” said Poetschke-Langer.

In Berlin’s bars people worry between puffs about July, when local authorities have vowed to start enforcing the ban and close down those who fail to comply.

“We packed away the ashtrays at the beginning of the year, and people were really unhappy. And of course once one person lights a cigarette, you cannot stop the rest,” said Peter Meffert, the barman at “Der Würgeengel” (the Angelof Death).

“So now we have to do it again and they are still not going to be happy,” he said.