Another smoke screen?

There was something almost festive about the first day of Greece’s ostensible smoking ban on Wednesday – as if people were trying out a strange foreign ritual before reverting to their old habits. Coffee shop patrons and office workers stepped outside to light up, in keeping with the law that prohibits smoking indoors – with the exception of bouzouki joints and casinos with floor space greater than 300 square meters (those with cash to burn have the right to poison themselves and others, it seems). The mood was that we should give this European and American craze a try, rather than accepting it as a step toward liberating ourselves from the chains of addiction. As we know, previous attempts to limit smoking have run aground on the Greeks’ God-given right to do as they please. In this year of change, it is fitting that the government should try to adopt one more change to the way we behave. However unrelated this seems to the monumental effort of reforming the economy, social security and the labor market, the smoking ban could serve as a measure of how much Greeks are prepared to change. As anyone with experience of Greece knows, smoking cigarettes is not simply the ritualized inhalation of nicotine, tar and other addictive substances but a personal statement; not an admission of dependence but a declaration of personal liberty; not a waste of money and a mortal danger but a constant companion through all of life’s joys, trials and everyday routines. The utter failure of the ban on taxi drivers’ smoking a few years ago simply confirmed that, in Greece, laws serve only as a smoke screen for public opinion, not as an effort to modify behavior, to facilitate the smooth running of society or to enforce prohibitions. So, at this time when Greeks are being pressed to change radically the way they work and the way they live, the attempt to ban smoking will show whether their spirit has been broken or whether they are still not prepared to go gently into the night. Will they accept that, at last, something has to change in their personal behavior, as they appear to have accepted the major economic reforms? Or will they say: «Enough! We have already given up so much, we will not tolerate any further impositions on our personal freedom»? Will they put aside their emotions and see the restrictions as an incentive to give up a habit that is both dangerous and very, very expensive? It is difficult to guess which way things will go. But what is clear is that if the ban is not enforced through decisive and constant action by the authorities, it will degenerate into yet another travesty, one that will simply push smokers and nonsmokers to keep quarreling, as they do now, with one group trying to impose its will on the other without any state body serving as arbiter. It will be further confirmation that Greeks are left to fend for themselves, as if they were in some prehistoric society rather than citizens of a state in which laws are established by Parliament and enforced by the police, municipal authorities and anyone else in a position of responsibility. In a popular phrase, freedom is defined as stretching your body to the length that it is covered by your blanket without extending onto your neighbor’s. This rule has often been broken in the general breakdown of social mores that accompanies Greece’s breakneck urbanization and reliance on political connections and easy money for personal progress. We see it in politics, in the economy, in how we drive and park, how we jump queues and pay and take bribes. But nowhere do we see it more dramatically than in the clouds of smoke that emanate from most smokers, as they stake their personal claim to territory far beyond their expansive selves. The latest effort to ban smoking in closed public spaces will show whether we have begun to understand that we are all members of one society, not many intersecting ones, and whether, eventually, someone in authority cares about enforcing the law.

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