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Last gasp petition for Bavarian smoking ban edges to referendum

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Last gasp petition for Bavarian smoking ban edges to referendum
Photo: DPA
15:14 CET+01:00
With just three days left for people to sign a petition for a referendum to strengthen Bavaria's porous smoking ban, organisers told The Local on Monday that they have collected more than 80 percent of the required signatures.

“We are still hoping,” the initiative's spokeswoman Sofie Langmeier said, explaining that 150,000 signatures still needed to be collected by Wednesday. “We can certainly imagine that we'll break through. We're being a bit cautious because it will be quite close.”

The measure, supported by the centre-left Social Democrats, the Greens and other ecological and athletic organisations, must be backed by 950,000 Bavarians, or some 10 percent of the state's population, before it can be put to a referendum.

Supporters want to roll back the more liberal implementation of the state's general smoking ban that went into effect on August 1. It allows adult smokers in pubs smaller than 75 square metres, in addition to restaurants and beer tents that create smoking sections in side rooms. Smoking is now also allowed at establishments that can insure limited second-hand smoke with special ventilation systems.

The legislation has been heavily criticised by anti-smoking advocates, but many voters in the state were in favour of dropping the ban completely.

“This is the last chance – it's now or never,” Langmeier told The Local. “We know from other referendums that there is a real run on the signing locations in the final days, so municipalities have decided to keep their doors open later for the last three days.”

Last week, Bavarian Health Minister Markus Söder defended relaxing the state's ban, which the country's high court deemed constitutional in early October. He said the current rules are “practicable and comprehensible,” adding that he predicted “enormous problems” and a return to smoking clubs should there be a successful referendum to force the ban back to its original, stricter incarnation.

Söder also said that he foresaw problems at Munich's yearly Oktoberfest celebrations, where Bavarians have militantly insisted on their freedom to puff on cigarettes, cigars and pipes.

“It's a topic that somehow touches the deepest parts of the Bavarian soul and that also probably has a proxy function,” Langmeier said. “But Oktoberfest has many guests from other countries that are astounded there is no smoking ban.”

While smoking was banned in bars and restaurants in most German states starting January 1, 2008, the restrictions have been widely flouted. For example, many bars in Berlin set ashtrays on the tables after dark. And legal exceptions in many states have also weakened the smoking ban.

Six months after the ban began, courts ruled against the restrictions in Berlin and Baden-Württemberg, allowing smoking in bars smaller than 75 square metres (807 square feet) where no food is served. Meanwhile in Bavaria, bars found a loophole that allowed them to become “smoking clubs” before the current revision, which no longer allows the clubs, went into effect.

But in addition to the continued health concerns the relaxed ban presents, the current rules are too difficult to regulate, Langmeier explained.

“Of course one doesn't have to go inside a smoking establishment, but society doesn't divide itself into smokers and non-smokers,” she said. “We were always tolerant of smokers, but let's turn it around and ask the smokers to be tolerant of us.”

If the initiative gathers enough signatures by December 2, the state parliament will address the proposal itself or call for a state-wide referendum.

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