Igniting Europe’s smoking revolution

Now that small German pubs can once again allow patrons to light up, Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent for British daily The Times, hopes Germany could soon be at the vanguard of Europe’s anti-anti-smoking movement.

Igniting Europe's smoking revolution
Photo: DPA

Bow-tied Berlin bartender Gregor Scholl is an Anglophile and a committed monarchist. Now however he is being hailed as a revolutionary – part of a group of disgruntled pub’licans who have successfully reversed a key section of Germany’s anti-smoking legislation.

A Constitutional Court ruling last week in favour of lighting up in small one-room pubs with no serving staff has torn a hole in the laws. And in Mr Scholl’s Rum Trader bar there are only a handful of stools and one virtually has to clamber over the bodies of imbibing politicians and journalists to reach the lavatory.

Could it mark the beginning of a rollback in Europe’s campaign against the smoker? I like to think so.

For outsiders it seems a little odd that Germany should be in the vanguard on this issue. Is Germany not the Verboten society where everything is unacceptable? Are not no-nos in Germany so usefully spelled out by signs or lists pinned up in the corridor of your apartment building, or, failing all that, by one’s nosy neighbour?

Yet the truth is it is almost impossible to think of Germany without its curtain of exhaled tobacco. Marlene Dietrich in a smoke-free room? Ludwig Erhard without his cigar? For more than a century the sexiest actors and the sharpest brains have been smokers. A regular column in Die Zeit allows former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to muse about the world for the space of time it takes to puff one of his cigarettes and light up another. He is 89 and perhaps the last champion of the tradition whereby Alpha politicians invariably puffed on phallic pipes.

Under Germany’s new anti-smoking regime, two members of the fire brigade have to stand by in the TV studio as soon as Mr Schmidt so much as reaches for a box of matches. The present Chancellor, Angela Merkel, meanwhile sets an example by nibbling her nails rather than inhaling nicotine. As for the heirs to Marlene Dietrich, the smouldering actresses of the 21st century, they chew gum. Some might call that progress.

Certainly Adolf Hitler would have been happy. One of the biggest surges of research into lung cancer came under the Nazis and he was a militant anti-smoker. Lenin did his bit for the cause too, pioneering the non-smoking train. His fellow Bolsheviks had to stub out their cigarettes when they travelled in sealed carriages from Switzerland to Russia to lead the revolution.

Of course, you do not have to be a nasty dictator to want to ban smoking. Anyone who has spent time in a hospital waiting room knows that lung cancer is a terrible corroding disease. Wheezing patients attached to their mobile oxygen tanks are pitied even by fellow cancer sufferers.

The link between heavy smoking and lung cancer is indisputable. The problem is how to measure the possibly destructive effects of passive smoking and to how to legislate to protect those most at risk. Children are vulnerable, so are pregnant women. So too is the waitress who works ten hours in a closed all-smoking pub. These risks, however, can be minimized by common sense – opening a window, say, or installing an air filter – rather than by passing laws which are difficult to enforce and seek to overturn a whole culture. The serving staff should be informed of the true risks, compensated for discomfort – and allowed to make their own choices. Children should not be allowed in pubs not so much because of the possible danger of breathing in someone else’s smoke but because the pub could glamourize alcohol.

But legislating strictly against a majority to protect a small minority is, dare I say it, very German. This is the country remember that scrapped the ultra-modern Transrapid maglev train between Berlin and Hamburg because it could disrupt bird nesting behaviour. A country where autobahns are diverted because they interfere with the migration path of various types of frogs.

Mr Scholl though is not a frog. Neither he nor his cramped customers need an elaborate architecture of legal protection. They are capable of making informed choices. It really is not compulsory to sample his martini cocktails, once extravagantly praised by Ian Fleming, inventor of James Bond, while puffing a cigar. But the practice gives pleasure to many and provides Mr Scholl with a living. Now Germany’s top judges have ruled that Mr Scholl and his ilk have a constitutional right to make a living in this way. Customers can go elsewhere if they are unhappy.

And so – although the ruling so far applies only to Berlin and Baden-Württemberg – smokers across Europe are looking to Germany to carry on developing this argument. The balance between protecting the young and the vulnerable on the one hand and slowing down the erosion of constitutional rights on the other is being re-calibrated in of all places Germany.

There is a practical dimension too: if you want to put the young off smoking you do not give cigarettes a kind of underground glamour. For teenagers, smoking has never been so cool – light up and you are defying not only your parents and medical advice but the full weight of the law.

Suddenly every 17-year-old in Berlin seems to have a cigarette hanging from his lips like James Dean. And guess what? James Dean did not die of smoking.

For more Roger Boyes, check out his website here.

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.