Greeks fume over smoking ban

For the fourth time in a decade, Greece’s government has imposed a sweeping smoking baninfosmoking ban, determined to wean its nicotine-needy nation from cigarettes. Almost instantly after it came into effect on Sept. 1, ashtrays vanished from closed offices, cafés and restaurants. No-smoking signs donned on walls. And scores of green-capped municipal officers fanned out to inspect public premises while countless smokers dutifully took their burning butts outside – the only place where smoking is permitted.

The warm weather had helped. But in Greece, bad habits die hard, and a backlash is planned for when the temperatures drop in winter. Enforcement is already ailing.

“What happens when winter comes along?” quips Alexis Avramidis, a bartender at a café north of Athens. “Once I seal the glass front of the café terrace, business here is going to plummet. And this, on top of a 20 per cent drop caused by the financial crisis.”

Most nightclub owners vow to defy the ban. Others, though, are considering innovative alternatives like parking smoke buses outside bars and restaurants, or converting their establishments into members-only clubs to keep police away. At the swanky Balux House Project lounge, owners have already propped up smoking tents.

Less than a month since the ban went into effect, officials in Athens – home to half of country’s population of 11 million – say no citations have been issued against any offender. In fact, local authorities policing the ban want to delay enforcement until 2011, hoping to win extra resources and manpower from the federal government.

“I have 780 municipal police officers minding the entire city,” deputy mayor Andreas Papadakis says. “Only 50 of them will be assigned exclusively to this task. And yet, how can they alone monitor 18,000 licensed operations and millions of smokers?”

Peel away from Athens and the situation gets worse. In the suburbs, municipal police number less than half a dozen in each district. The number drops drastically in rural areas. And on hundreds of sun-kissed islands, municipal police is non-existent. Mr. Papadakis takes to the Health Ministry to convince officials to either intensify a public awareness campaign or commit additional resources, enlisting, also, the support of the national police force.

Greece is the last of the original 12 countries in the European Union to enforce such a smoking ban. For a country of smokers – about 42 per cent light up every day, making them Europe’s most nicotine-loving people – the ban is draconian, covering nearly every place where Greeks light up: stadiums, schools, theatres, taverns, public transport and prisons.

With the European Union targeting the hazards and costs of smoking like never before, successive governments in Athens have faced mounting pressure to clamp down on public smoking.

But Greece is different. This tiny country teeters awkwardly between European modernity and a Balkan mindset, struggling for decades to find a balance. The smoking ban debate illustrates that.

“We’re difficult people,” says café owner Nikos Louvros, taking a drag on his fifth in less than an hour. “We are free-willed, not because we like being unruly but because we need to be convinced of the need to comply, first.”

Take the Athens 2004 Olympics, he explains. Greeks dashed to complete preparations after realizing the international shame they faced if they failed to do so.

Now, Mr. Louvros argues, “Greeks are defying the smoking ban because they have yet to be convinced of the necessity to quit smoking.”

Until they do, Mr. Louvros, the bespectacled owner of the Booze Co-operative in central Athens, has registered his café as the headquarters of a newly formed Smoking Party to evade smoke police.

“Smoking doesn’t kill,” he says, flashing his tobacco-stained teeth. “It’s the stress and junk food. Convinced?”

Anthee Carassava

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