Will the Greeks Ever Stop Smoking?

The country largely ignores a 2010 ban. This Christmas, that could change.

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Reuters

Today's Greece can be aptly described as a nicotine addict's paradise. A thick fug of cigarette smoke still hangs in the air of most Greek bars and restaurants, even though the country technically banned smoking in indoor public spaces back in 2010. With more smokers per capita than any other country in the E.U., it seems that neither the public nor the police can be bothered to make sure the anti-smoking rule is obeyed.

This Christmas, that could all change. A new memo from the Greek Ministry of Health has found its way into the press, vowing, finally, to crack down. During Greece's busiest season for indoor bars, the ministry is promising to implement tough fines both for smokers and for the spaces that let them light up. Greek smokers may well be wondering why the clampdown is happening now, but outsiders are asking themselves a different question: How is it that Greece's previous smoking bans have had so little effect?

An employee smokes a cigarette at a window of Greek state television ERT. (John Kolesidis/Reuters)

Part of the answer is surely that smoking bans only work well when the majority of public opinion has swung behind them. Americans had largely turned against smoking before bar and restaurant bans started to be put in place in major U.S. cities, but Greece’s love affair with cigarettes is far from over. Over 40 percent of Greeks aged 15 and over smoke, compared to an E.U. average of 29 percent. This could be why overstretched police, many of whom chain smoke themselves, have thrown so little weight behind the ban. Indeed, enforcement of the Greek smoking ban is rare enough to be almost mythical.

"There was a time three years ago when restaurants started separating people into smoking and non-smoking sections," says Yannis Vagenas, an Athenian graphic designer. "But they gave it up pretty fast. I once heard that a friend of a friend got checked by the police, but that’s about it. Now when I go into a bar, I still expect to see ashtrays on the tables."

It's true that Greeks also have a reputation for seeing certain kinds of laws as somewhat flexible. The country’s political elite is widely mistrusted, and many Greeks reason that they shouldn't be held to rules that lawmakers themselves aren’t too great at obeying. When it comes to smoking, they couldn’t be more right. This February, a group of 88 Greek MPs complained formally that their colleagues were puffing away throughout the parliament building. When a country with an indoor smoking ban has a parliament belching smoke like the devil’s backside, it’s no wonder ordinary citizens feel they have the right to light up wherever they please. It also doesn’t help that the current minister of health behind the crackdown is a national joke, a former far-right sympathizer who used to sell his own self-penned pop history books by screaming on a trashy TV channel.

A man smokes while looking at lottery tickets outside an OPAP lottery shop in central Athens. (John Kolesidis/Reuters)

Still, if the crackdown happens, stiff fines could cow Greek smokers pretty fast.

Bar patrons caught smoking will allegedly face a €500 fine. Any business that allows smoking risks a penalty of anything between €500 and €10,000, the severity of the fine depending on how complicit the place is with its smoking customers. It would be silly to bemoan the implementation of a ban that could do so much for bar workers' and non-smokers' health and sanity, but the timing does seem a little harsh. December and its traditional holidays are probably Greece's busiest time of the year for (indoor) bars. Rather than waiting until things calm down in January, that traditional month of renunciation, the Health Ministry almost seems to want to create a clash, and an accompanying cascade of fines.

Will Greeks smokers fight back? According to Vagenas, the ongoing crisis means they probably won't. "Everybody here likes to feel that they stand up to authority," he said. "But when it comes down to it, no one wants to pay a €500 fine.”

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