A crash test for egotists

The Greeks’ relationship with their cigarettes is the perfect metaphor for the way in which the individual sees himself and his relationship with those around him. Cigarette smoking is both intensely personal and part of our collective activity, whether we smoke or inhale the smoke of others. The ban on smoking that comes into effect in Parliament on Sunday is therefore the first big test of how the rest of the country’s smokers will deal with the new restrictions that will come into effect on July 1. Our members of Parliament are fully representative of the rest of us: They smoke and we can bet they will try to get around the ban in any way they can. This is the heart of the matter: There is no shortage of laws passed in Greece, but they are meaningless when not enforced. Looking at what members of Parliament do will be most interesting, as we will be able to see whether the very people who pass the laws will show the self-discipline needed to rein in their smoking or whether they will make a mockery of the legislature and, consequently, of themselves. Seeing the way many of them already flout nonsmoking regulations – such as one MP who is a regular feature on television, always with a lit cigarette – it will be surprising indeed if MPs decide to set a good example. Perhaps they will turn out to be better than our taxi drivers, most of whom have continued to smoke, in the presence of customers, even though this was forbidden by a law passed several years ago (but we shouldn’t hold our breath). As our report on this issue reveals, the details on how the new law will apply on July 1 remain vague, awaiting clarification through ministry circulars. These are the circulars the vagueness or absence of which is frequently blamed for the fact that laws, even when they have been passed by Parliament, are often not put into effect or enforced. We will not be surprised if the circulars are delayed way beyond the introduction of the national ban on smoking in public areas until officials (especially elected ones) can gauge whether they should try to enforce the law. Until such time as they do step in, it will be up to bar and restaurant owners, customers, office managers and so on to try find a modus vivendi. If that happens, the people entrusted with running the country will leave it to the citizens themselves to find their way around a thorny problem. This will lead to arbitrary interpretations of the law and spotty enforcement. It will also lead to such tension between those who flout the law and those who want them to abide by it that soon, for the sake of peace, all will pretend there is no such law. As we see in the way the Greeks treat the public spaces around them – as receptacles of garbage and theaters of bad behavior – many behave as if the area around them is their personal space. In France, Italy and other countries whose citizens were just as enamored of cigarettes as the Greeks, people accepted the smoking ban with surprising self-discipline. In Greece, because the absence of a serious state has taught everyone that laws are arbitrary and can therefore be ignored with impunity, we have still not worked out where one’s identity begins and ends nor the fact that each is personally responsible for contributing to collective harmony.

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