Germans win right to light up after court ruling on smoking

The puff has been taken out of smoke bans, writes James Norman in Berlin.

IN BERLIN, it is not unusual to walk into a city cafe or bar and have to find a table through a haze of acrid cigarette smoke. In stark contrast to Australia — where smokers have become a much maligned social group — the German High Court has just overturned smoking bans in sMall bars and restaurants, making Germany one of the last havens for smokers in Europe. The ruling came after the owners of two sMall bars claimed their businesses had been unfairly hit by the smoking ban. They claimed that because of their bars' sMall size, they were unable to provide a cordoned-off smoking area, which created a competitive disadvantage. The constitutional court agreed. The ruling means that German states must ban smoking in all pubs or restaurants or offer exceptions for single-room establishments. The court ruled that the previous rather modest smoking ban proposed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats was unconstitutional. It found that the law went against the rights of the state governments to impose their own regulations. This latest ruling is part of an ongoing tussle in Germany, where the forces of civil libertarianism and corporate tobacco industry interests have become unlikely bedfellows. One-third of Germans smoke. And there's a tradition here of rejecting heavy-handed government interference in daily life — dogs are allowed in cafes here and bike helmets are not mandatory. Similarly, many Germans view smoking in public places as an issue of civil rights and liberties. But the court ruling doesn't mean that the anti-tobacco campaign is completely up in smoke. Although the anti-tobacco lobby is not as strong here as Australia's Quit campaign, there are increasingly vocal anti-tobacco forces that claim it is the influence of the tobacco lobby blocking the ban. "What we are witnessing is the Government bending to the tobacco lobby," said health expert and Social Democratic legislator Karl Lauterbach in an interview with The New York Times. But German tobacco lobbyist Wouda Kuipers said: "We are warning against a growing culture of bans and regulations in Germany." In Berlin, many bar owners complain that their businesses may have to close if they are forced to stop patrons from smoking. So the rules are regularly ignoRed, which has led some bar owners to put up signs stating: "Smoking policy: Don't ask, Don't tell!" History may play a role here too. The Nazi Party was strongly opposed to smoking and, after 1945, smoking became a symbol of postwar freedoms and progressive values. Other European countries, including Britain, Ireland, France and Italy, have banned smoking in public places. But Germany and two other heavy-smoking countries, Denmark and Luxembourg, continue to hold out for the protection of non-smokers. All 27 European Union nations have rules limiting smoking in public places, but they vary from country to country. The German court further ordeRed German states to review their laws and to come up with new ones by the end of 2009. In the meantime, one-room establishments can allow people to light up again, provided they advertise themselves as smoking establishments and enforce an over-18 only rule. The German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg estimates that smoking kills 110,000 to 140,000 Germans a year, and that at least nine people die every day (or 3300 a year) due to passive smoke-related diseases. As with much else in Berlin, there is a strong sense that many would prefer to leave such options to the discretion of individuals rather than impose new government regulations. But even for civil libertarians, the right to smoke must ultimately be weighed against the rights of non-smokers to a healthy environment. So even though Germans will raise More objections than most, ultimately it seems that they, too, will eventually fall into line with much of the developed world — and keep smokers outdoors.

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