Brussels, Sept. 19 (Reuters): Smokers across Europe spluttered with indignation today when they learned of EU health commissioner David Byrne’s plans to ban smoking in bars, cafes and restaurants across the 15-member European Union.
Byrne and commissioner for employment and social affairs, Anna Diamontopoulou, are considering using safety at work legislation to enforce a ban, a similar approach used to enforce smoking bans in many US cities. But not all Europeans share Byrne’s enthusiasm for stamping out smoking. “If smoking rules here were as strict as they are in New York, I’d emigrate,” said Sofia, a bank worker on a coffee and cigarette break in a bar in central Rome.
“But a total ban would never work, at least not in Italy. We’re very good at getting around rules,” she added, shrugging.
Byrne, already pushing through proposals to ban tobacco advertising and put gory pictures of cancerous lungs on cigarette packs, also faces official opposition Denmark’s health minister, Lars Loekke Rasmussen, said the EU should stay out of national politics. “David Byrne has to pipe down. The EU should not get involved. We have to solve the problem by voluntary means,” said the ex-smoker, who still enjoys a good cigar. Byrne has been committed to reducing the 500,000 deaths caused by smoking in the European Union each year. Yesterday he said in an interview that he thought smoking should be curtailed in public places where workers could be put at risk, in line with the practice in 2004 in his native Ireland.
His spokesman confirmed that Byrne and his Greek colleague were in talks to figure out how such a ban could be enforced.
Paradoxically, the amount the EU spends on anti-smoking campaigns is dwarfed by the one billion euros ($1.13 billion) it spends subsidising tobacco farmers in poor southern Europe.
Byrne has said the commission has pledged to phase out tobacco subsidies, but in the meantime, he will have his work cut out to persuade Europeans to stub out the habit which often goes hand-in-hand with a glass of wine or a dash of espresso. Opposition may be even stronger in the 10 mostly eastern European countries set to join the EU next year, where cigarette consumption is significantly above EU averages. Romania, which hopes to join the EU in 2007, has one of Europe’s highest smoking rates, with around 70 per cent of the male population and 40 per cent of women hooked. “Let’s pray they wouldn’t ban smoking on the streets,” said 33-year-old Marcel Tomas.
Even in Ireland, where a home-grown ban is due to start in January, initially strong support is ebbing away. Only 52 per cent support the ban in principle, with just 37 per cent backing a January start.