Smoking Ban Failure Triggers Emergency Czech Coalition Talks

  • Parties bicker after smoking-ban law fails despite ruling pact
  • Dispute worsens coalition tension before 2017 budget talks

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka called for emergency talks after a failure to pass a long-awaited law banning smoking in restaurants ignited tension in his ruling coalition.

Sobotka’s Social Democrats locked horns with ANO, the junior coalition party led by billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis, after lawmakers failed to support a bill to outlaw smoking in restaurants and bring the country in line with the majority of their European Union partners. The prime minister scheduled a meeting on Friday after they accused each other of breaking their coalition pact and warned that intensifying bickering could sink the government. 

“No government coalition can function without mutually supporting its law proposals,” Sobotka, told Czech TV Thursday, saying he wanted to discuss the law again and pass it before 2017 general elections. “We can’t give up. It’s not possible to make concessions to the tobacco lobby.”

The law’s unexpected failure was a disappointment to a majority of Czechs supporting a smoking ban and underscored the animosity between Babis’s pro-business ANO and Sobotka’s more socially conscious party before 2017 budget talks start on Monday. Sniping between the parties has also intensified before October regional elections, with polls showing ANO ahead of the Social Democrats by several percentage points. Babis, who owns chemical, food and media businesses, is the most party leader.

For a story on Czech efforts to impose a smoking ban, click here.

“I’m sick of this,” Babis said, according to newspaper Lidove Noviny on Thursday. “If it continues, I think the coalition won’t hold for much longer.” Sobotka accused the ANO party of turning the country into a “smoker’s museum” and called the failed law proposal a “disgrace.”

Tobacco Lobby

The finance minister’s lawmakers said they rejected the bill because the original version, which would impose a total ban on tobacco use in bars and restaurants and tighten rules for selling alcohol, was too watered down. The final proposal, supported by the Social Democrats and some opposition parties, would have let restaurant owners have separate smoking rooms.

The Czech Republic is the last EU country that doesn’t restrict smoking in restaurants, leaving the decision to allow or forbid it to the owners. Lawmakers have failed to pass various forms of a ban over the years, even though the public has become increasingly supportive. Almost 60 percent of Czechs want to outlaw smoking in restaurants, according to a CVVM poll from October 2015. 

ANO’s “no” vote may have been the result of lobbying from tobacco producers, Jiri Mihola, parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrats, the third and smallest government coalition partner, told CTK news agency. Philip Morris Czech Republic AS, the country’s sole publicly traded cigarette producer, has gained 1.8 percent since the vote.

For a chart on Philip Morris Czech Republic’s performance, click here.

“The statements of some MPs indicate that the passage of a law like this is not very likely in the nearest term,” said Milan Vanicek, an equity analyst at J&T Banka AS in Prague. “We consider another delay positive for the domestic tobacco industry.”

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