German bars flouting smoking ban by converting to private clubs

Restaurants and bars in the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and Bavaria have found a way to legally flout the country's new smoking ban by converting their businesses to smoking clubs.

German bars flouting smoking ban by converting to private clubs
Duesseldorf bar owners display their new smoking club announcement. Photo: DPA

Bars and restaurants across the country have been reporting decreased revenues due to the smoking ban, but the national German smoker’s club DRC offers a partial solution that an increasing number of establishments in the two states are choosing in order to keep their smoking customers. For €25, bars can buy a bright-yellow sign to indicate their DRC membership, and then set special private “club hours” for DRC members, who can register online for €9.95 per year.

The DRC has some 600 member clubs, 200 of which have signed on in just the last two weeks after smoking ban enforcement went into effect on July 1, German broadcaster WDR reported last week.

“Smoking bars are springing up like mushrooms right now,” Dieter Böhden, owner of the first smoking club in Paderborn, NRW, told the station. Bavaria bars are also jumping on board, with about every tenth bar turned into a smoking club, the station reported.

Gertrud Schröter, a restaurant owner in Cologne told The Local this week that she was afraid of losing her guests and had recently downloaded the statutes from the Internet and introduced fees. Now only members are allowed to enter her club during smoker’s hours. But while hard-core smokers can still get their fix at the Venloer Stube, Schröter said she is still suffering financially despite her attempt to lure customers back to her bar.

“I would have to shut down,” Schröter told The Local. “You can’t compare Germany with other countries in Europe. We have a very special smoking culture. Smoking and bars – that belongs together here.”

The German Cancer Aid organization (Deutsche Krebshilfe) has slammed the legal loophole. “We criticize all possibilities that avoid the smoking ban. Particularly the so-called smoking clubs trying to maintain the old status quo,” head of the organization Gerd Nettekoven told WDR.

Officials from North Rhine-Westphalia have reacted indifferently to criticism and have said they want to retain the loophole.

While other states don’t have the same smoker’s club loophole, there have been reports that enforcement of the new smoking ban has been weak due to personnel shortages and a general will against the ban.