Germany Bans Smoking, Sort of

The agreement to ban smoking in public places allows exceptions that the country's states may choose to include in their laws

Germany's states have reached an agreement on banning smoking in public places. Bars and restaurants will soon be smoke-free. But possibly not all bars. Or not all parts of bars. Maybe.

A great wind of fresh air is blowing through Europe as one country after another imposes bans on smoking in public. Now Germany has hopped on the non-smoking bandwagon -- but in its own inimitable half-hearted federal fashion.

Germany has agreed on a ban on smoking in public places -- but with exceptions. Small pubs might still be allowed to allow smoking, or there may be separate rooms for smokers. Perhaps.

The governors of Germany's 16 federal states met in Berlin Thursday to discuss a smoking ban. Contrary to expectations, they managed to hammer out a wide-ranging agreement on a smoking ban in public places. The individual states will be responsible for putting the ban into law -- most say they plan to do so by the end of this year or early in 2008 -- and may decide to include certain exceptions that the agreed ban allows.

As a result, smokers may theoretically be able to shop around between Germany's federal states to see where they are still allowed to smoke. In principle, smoking will be banned in bars and restaurants. However smoking might still be allowed in separate rooms within bars or restaurants -- should individual states decide to include that exception in their smoking laws.

The federal states will also be able to decide if they want to exclude small neighborhood bars known as Eckkneipen ("corner pubs") from the smoking ban. Eckkneipen tend to have a lot of smokers among their largely working-class clientele and there have been several media reports recently featuring pub patrons expressing vocal opposition to a smoking ban. Smoking will also be banned in schools, kindergartens, public authority buildings, theaters, public transport and discotheques.

Despite the possible exceptions, "90 percent of the protection of non-smokers in Germany will be unified," says Christian Wulff, the conservative governor of Lower Saxony state. The new agreement is the greatest step to protect non-smokers "which there has ever been in Germany," he said. He added that the 16 governors were assuming that at some point in the future all bars and restaurants would be smoke-free.

The peculiarly German compromise is a result of the country's highly federalized political structure, where the individual federal states have the power to decide on many issues. A federal-level law on a smoking ban was originally under consideration but was rejected as being unconstitutional.

It is still unclear whether the federal states will actually take advantage of the possible exceptions when they put the ban into effect. States like Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland and Saxony-Anhalt had previously said they wanted exceptions for certain bars, while Bavaria -- famous for its Oktoberfest celebrations -- has said it wants separate regulations for beer tents.

The reaction to the plan from many politicians and observers was "close, but no cigar." Consumer Protection Minister Horst Seehofer criticized the smoking ban as being insufficient. Thousands of people die every year from the consequences of passive smoking, he told the newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten on Friday. "There can be no compromise in this area," he said.

The business daily Handelsblatt reported Friday that several politicians from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) were planning an attempt to push through a smoking ban without any exceptions, by invoking the law governing occupational health and safety. They argue that employees in bars and restaurants should be protected from the dangers of passive smoking.

The German Medical Association (BÄK) accused the states of having failed, while the German Cancer Society said it hoped for support for the ban from the population and called for referendums on the state level about the smoking ban.

The EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou welcomed the move, however. "All steps on the road to a smoke-free Europe are welcome," he said.

Several EU countries have already imposed wide-ranging bans on smoking in public places, including Ireland, Scotland, and recently France.


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