Defiant Greeks Prepare to Keep Smoking as Ban Compounds Economy

Athens restaurant owner Petros Migdos says it’s not just policies to tackle the ailing Greek economy that are hurting his business, it’s also one greece smoking adsaimed at improving the health of his countrymen.

Greece, home to Europe’s heaviest smokers, prohibited puffing in public places such as bars and tavernas on Sept. 1. This month, proprietors began returning ashtrays to indoor tables in preparation to defy the law as winter approaches.

“I agree it’s a good thing to cut the cigarettes, but it is not the time to impose these measures because of the economic crisis,” Migdos, 50, said as he took a break to smoke.

Greece is the only European country to implement a tobacco ban during the financial turmoil of the past two years. Consumers and companies are enduring some of the continent’s biggest tax increases and spending cuts as Prime Minister George Papandreou tries to rescue an economy that required a 110 billion-euro ($152 billion) international loan package.

The Pan-Hellenic Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, representing 121,000 restaurants and bars, urged its members to put ashtrays back on tables starting Oct. 18.

“It will take time for people to accept the smoking ban,” George Lezos, 52, a civil servant, said as he sat outside a cafe in the Athens neighborhood of Vyrona, dragging on one of the roughly 20 cigarettes he smokes every day. “We Greeks tend to resist laws telling us what to do.”

Rising Prices

Papandreou’s government has raised taxes on tobacco, alcohol and fuel to help cut Europe’s second-biggest budget deficit. It increased the price of 20 cigarettes three times, by 60 cents to 3.80 euros, starting in January. Greece’s economy is set to contract 4 percent this year and 2.6 percent next year, the government forecasts.

Polls indicate most Greeks will use their votes in Nov. 7 local elections to protest the measures. A GPO survey published on Oct. 22 showed 67 percent of 5,000 voters had a negative opinion of the government compared with 57 percent in August.

Greeks should be patient when it comes to adjusting to the new smoking law, Deputy Health Minister Michalis Timosidis said at a press conference in Athens on Oct. 26.

“We are talking about a law that changes the culture and mindset of Greece,” he said. “We never hid the fact that there would be difficulties. There are shops that are not complying, but there is also a number that are.”

No Excuse

The economic situation in Greece should not be an excuse to postpone the smoking measure, according to Constantine Vardavas, a professor at the University of Crete and a collaborator with the Harvard School of Public Health who helped the Greek government craft its anti-smoking policy.

Greece has the highest rate of smoking among European Union countries and about 20,000 people die from smoking-related diseases every year, according to the Ministry of Health. Smoking-related health costs for the government, which has the second-highest debt in the EU, total 2.1 billion euros.

“Resistance to the smoking ban was expected,” Vardavas said after the press conference at Greece’s Ministry of Health. “But what are we going to do? Stop public health in Greece for the next decade because we’re in an economic crisis?”

European countrywide smoking bans in bars and restaurants started in Ireland in 2004 and then in countries including Norway, Italy and Scotland over the following two years and places such as England and France later.

In Ireland and Scotland smokers brave the elements and stand outside pubs with ashtrays on the wall.

King Otto

Greece’s law prohibits smoking in all enclosed public and private workplaces. Casinos and night clubs over 300 square meters (3,230 square feet) with live music will have eight months to adjust to the new measures.

Fines for individual smokers start at 50 euros and rise to 500 euros for repeat offenders. Businesses face fines of as much as 10,000 euros for non-compliance.

Greeks, who today celebrate a national holiday to mark when they stood up to an Italian ultimatum during World War II, have defied smoking bans since 1856, when King Otto and Queen Amalia prohibited smoking inside state buildings. An attempt by the previous government last year failed.

Papandreou should wait two years for the ban to take place to give time for the economy to improve, Migdos said.

“Now when we have a wedding or baptism reservation, instead of 100 people, only half come because of the smoking ban and the ones that do come leave early,” he said.

Smaller Greek businesses face funding problems and reduced revenue for the remainder of this year as the economic slump and increased taxes hit consumer spending, according to a poll by Athens-based Marc SA conducted July 15-28.

Of 960 businesses asked, 78 percent said revenue declined in the first half of 2010 and 66 percent see a further drop in the second half, the poll showed.

“The politicians don’t want to understand what we are experiencing,” said Migdos. “They have to be stupid to want to pass a measure like this in the middle of an economic crisis. Even a young child could figure that out.”

By Tom Stoukas

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