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Vienna | 1.7.2008 | 17:02 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

 
 
The Geneva Experiment
  Yesterday, the World Health Organization issued a report urging more countries to adopt smoking bans in public and at the workplace, saying there was enough evidence to prove they work, without hurting businesses such as restaurants and bars.

This comes as Europe is becoming more and more smoke-free: as of this morning new bans have come into effect in the Netherlands (idiosyncratically excluding cannabis-smoking), Liechtenstein and the Swiss canton of Geneva.
 
 
 
Swiss Democracy
  Anyone who has been to Geneva will probably find it hard to envisage a smoke-free night-scene there. Clouds of tobacco fumes seemed to hang permanently in the pubs and cafés of the lake-side city. But times change, and so do attitudes. In this part of west Switzerland, the smoking ban came on the back of a public referendum. Mark Butcher from World Radio Switzerland says there is a wide acceptance of the new ban in the city:

"I think that's down to the fact that it came after a vote. It wasn't a measure imposed on people from above. There was a popular vote and 80% of people voted that they wanted to ban smoking from bars and restaurant."

 
 
Health Fears vs. Commerical Fears
  Interestingly, Mark, himself a smoker, says that smoking wasn't really an issue in Switzerland until a group of concerned citizens starting collecting signatures for a popular vote: they got double the signatures they needed, and in half the time available to them to do so.

A debate ensued where, as usual, the economic fears of café owners were pitted against health concerns. But the winner was clear:

"The issue of passive smoking won. Before the ban, some of the bars in Geneva were very, very smoky. And it seems that people had simply had enough of that."
 
 
 
Sweaty-armpits vs blackened lungs
  On the eve of the ban, World Radio Switzerland went into a bar to talk to two expat drinkers from countries that have already banned smoking in bars and restaurants- were discussing what Geneva can expect.

Jason, a smoker, is from England, where bars and restaurants became smoke-free for 12 months today. He pointed out that the tobacco smoke used to hide other smells: "When it's 30 degrees outside, people are going to be sweating! That will no longer go unnoticed, he warned.

His friend Fiona, a non-smoker, is from Ireland, where bar patrons were forced to stub out their cigarettes over 4 years ago - she argued that sweaty arm-pits never killed anyone - whereas passive smoke has.
 
 
 
Smoking Cultures
  But Geneva is not Ireland, of course. Nor is it the UK, or New York City or any other Anglo-Saxon bastion. Nor is it warm Italy, where smokers can retreat to those idyllic out-side terraces for many months of the year. Geneva, like Austria, has an indoor café culture - where the languid cigarette with a coffee is part of a long tradition. Surely it will be more difficult to adapt there?

Mark says he has heard this story before: "We heard this about France, about Italy and about Ireland. Everyone said it couldn't work, that people would simply ignore the ban. But it all those cases, it has worked. On the whole, people seem to adapt pretty quickly."

 
 
Breathe easy
  Since we've been discussing England, let's look at the statistics from that country one year on from the ban. They are interesting:

235,000 people managed to quit smoking in the nine months from April to December 2007 - a rise of 22 per cent on the year before. Those official government figures have obviously pleased Amanda Sandford, of the anti-tobacco group ASH.

"It's a positive sign. Clearly a large number of people took the ban as an opportunity to kick the habit."

Fears that smokers would smoke more at home appear to have proved groundless. The latest statistics show with 67 per cent of households self-imposing a ban at home in England, compared with 61 per cent before the ban.

Meanwhile many hospitals in Ireland, Scotland and Italy, countries where smoking bans have been in place for over a year, have seen more than 10% drops heart attack admissions.
 
 
 
Tough Sales
  But there is another side to the story; of course:

The catering industry in the Netherlands has said that owners of 1,600 coffee shops across the country have responded to the ban there by putting their businesses up for sale, fearing that the tobacco restrictions mean they are doomed.

In England, the 12 month of ban has contributed to the closure of 1,409 pubs in 2007. Pubs, particularly rural pubs, actually face a myriad of challenges in England, not least a heavily-policed campaign against drink-driving. There's also been a cultural shift where Brits are drinking more wine at home and less beer in "Ye Olde White Lion". But since just 216 pubs went out of business in 2006, its quite clear that the smoking ban has played a role in putting people out of business. Amanda Sandford acknowledges this, but adds:

"It's not been as bad as many predicted; and those landlords who adapted and attracted new customers are doing as well as any other businesses. It's not a foregone conclusion that smoking bans are going to hit pubs and restaurants."

 
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