My Dear Krauts

Igniting Europe’s smoking revolution

Igniting Europe's smoking revolution
Photo: DPA
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.

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.