Greece: a sanctuary for smokers?

n Greece smoking is something of a national pastime – like the three-hour lunches and backgammon it often accompanies. And with half the population lighting up regularly, it is no surprise that the habit is a fiercely defended one, despite mounting evidence of its health risks. But as France, the Netherlands and Romania prepare to impose strict bans on smoking in bars and cafes on January 1, joining the ranks of an increasingly smoke-free Europe, one wonders how long Greece can remain a sanctuary for nicotine-lovers. The fate of an attempted crackdown in a country with the EU’s largest proportion of smokers (some 45 percent of the population) is questionable. Restrictions on smoking in public areas imposed five years ago are barely enforced: the tiny corners set aside for non-smokers in cafes and restaurants are invariably engulfed with smoke; chain-smoking taxi drivers seem to enjoy asphyxiating passengers; surly tax office clerks puff their way through packet after packet as elderly citizens stand in line; even the waiting rooms of some state hospitals smell of nicotine. Only public transport restrictions are observed religiously. Also some private firms have successfully enforced workplace smoking bans, inspiring some staffers to quit the habit. But the anti-smoking lobby is still a weak voice in a society where cigarettes are widely promoted and sometimes distributed free at bars and clubs. Being a «social smoker» – as 20-a-day friends dismissively observe – I appreciate the arguments of both sides: non-smokers have the right to clean air but smokers should be able to enjoy a cigarette in peace. The way things are in Greece, a full-out smoking ban is almost unthinkable. But some sobering statistics might change a few minds. Bars in Athens contain up to 40 times the recommended safe level for air pollution particles (known as PM 2.5), according to a recent study by Greek and US scientists. Tests on bars in New York and other regions of the US, by the same team, revealed that pollution levels are far lower (three times the safe level), having dropped significantly since smoking restrictions were introduced in 2003. Ireland, which imposed a blanket ban on smoking in public places only this year, boasts an even cleaner record. Greece’s continued tolerance of smoking in public places is not only in stark contrast to strict bans in other European countries, and in much of the US. It coincides with a downward spiral in Greeks’ life expectancy – from 2nd place in 1997 to 11th place this year – and a lack of progress in combating heart disease and cancer. There are certainly other factors contributing to reduced life expectancy – unhealthy eating habits and higher stress levels – but smoking is a major contributor. Many blame high rates of smoking on the authorities’ failure to crack down on the promotion of tobacco: Greece is one of the few original 15 EU states which still advertises cigarettes on roadside billboards (although this is changing). Others speak of an alleged reluctance by the state to curb the profits of domestic tobacco manufacturers, which have one of the highest outputs in the EU. However, it seems, the main obstacle to change is Greeks’ love affair with tobacco, and widespread reluctance to bow to authority. Elsewhere in Europe only the Cypriots display similar obstinacy. Also, the Spanish, and to a lesser extent the Germans, are protesting strict bans in bars and restaurants. But in many other European countries known for their «pub culture,» strict bans on smoking have met with surprisingly muted protests. A blanket ban on smoking in the bars and pubs of England was imposed last summer, much to the chagrin of die-hard smokers who must now get their nicotine fix out on the street, come rain or snow. The move has been welcomed by health experts who say it will curb illnesses caused by passive smoking. But many say the measure has ruined the cozy appeal of the traditional English pub. Optimists counter that the crackdown has boosted the singles’ scene, giving rise to «smirting» – the practice of flirting over a smoke at pub doorways. The Irish and Scots – whose smoky drinking dens were a hit with locals and tourists – have also adapted to new restrictions. Now the French – almost as committed to their Gaulloises as Greeks are to their Camels – are bracing for a similar ban. Hard as it is to imagine our refined French cousins abandoning a heated debate for a quick smoke on a street corner, the image will soon be a common one in Parisian cafe districts. Even tougher to visualize is the impact of such a ban in the Netherlands, and specifically on the coffee shops of Amsterdam where cannabis is smoked freely. Shop owners argue that the ban applies only to tobacco and is unlikely to hit them hard as cannabis can also be inhaled on its own, using pipes or vaporizers. But locals and tourists who relish the experience of smoking a joint openly in public will not like being relegated to a street corner. Still, the ban is imminent – and little resistance has been reported. One after the other, our EU peers are pushing through such measures, sacrificing short-term losses – in popularity and revenue – for long-term gains, even if this calls for major cultural changes. It will be interesting to see whether Greek authorities embrace this philosophy – and seek a solution that is fair to all – or whether the «tobacco lobby» will prevail and Greece will retain the dubious title of the EU smokers’ capital.