Down with public smoking!

Down with public smoking!

15th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

One Hamburg resident sounds off about the petition for a referendum on Germany’s smoking ban and why it is a step in the wrong direction.

These days, local bar/restaurant owners in Berlin are currently gathering signatures on petitions for a referendum to make enforcement of a smoking ban voluntary in Germany’s food-serving establishments, where smoking has been prohibited since January 1, 2008. The referendum, if successful, would allow restaurant owners themselves to decide whether patrons may smoke. Similar petitions have been circulating in my adopted city, Hamburg, where I have lived since July.

Before coming to Hamburg, I worked for two years in Bratislava where there was no such smoking ban. So it was a great relief to arrive in Germany and find that I could enjoy a restaurant meal without fear that my food might actually taste like cigarette butts.

In Hamburg, Berlin or any other city, we can easily predict what the great majority of bar/restaurant owners would decide, if given a choice, about smoking in their establishments. If they allowed smoking, they would earn more money not only from smokers frequenting their establishments but also from sales of cigarettes to those customers. The result of the vote can be predicted based on pure self-interest.

Hamburg: Quarantine!Smoking zones in the Deutsche Bahn © southgeist

 Hamburg: Quarantine!Smoking zones in the Deutsche Bahn

According to an article in the Berlin Express website, Initiativ Für Genuss (IFG), the organization behind the petition for the referendum, objects to the “ever-growing state interference in the private lives of individuals.” IFG claims on its website to appeal to smokers and non-smokers, alike, stating that its objective is “to respect non-smokers in public spaces, while allowing smokers to decide for themselves in bars.” Maybe the IFG folks think this sounds like a reasonable argument but what does it really mean—that smokers will stop smoking on the street, cease blowing their stinking poison into my face every day if I will just stay out of the cafes so they can smoke there in peace? If I thought that would really happen, I might consider signing the petition and eating and drinking at home but something tells me that my nicotine-addicted neighbors are not going to stop smoking outside to protect my rights in public.

And that is the bottom line: Smokers infringe on everyone else’s rights. When the smoker smokes on the street, on the train platform, at the bus stop, in the bar or on the balcony above or below mine, I smoke, too. And cancer researchers assured us long ago that second-hand smoke is lethal, just as first-hand smoke is.

Nonetheless, smokers here in Germany continue to embrace the 1950s notion that smoking is simply “a personal choice” each individual should be allowed to make for his or herself and that the government’s smoking regulations interfere with smokers’ private “enjoyment of life.” Newsflash: I need the government to step in and protect me from the diseases and potential early death that I might suffer as the result of breathing second-hand cigarette smoke all day, every day. I want the government to protect me from this hazard just as it protects me from other life-threatening hazards like asbestos or criminals with loaded guns in the street. Without governmental intervention, I am helpless against the army of thoughtless smokers who march the streets of Hamburg daily, merchants who puff away in their shops and mail carriers who light up in private residences.

Cologne: Non-smoking café popular in Germany © robertDouglass

 Cologne: Non-smoking café popular in Germany

And speaking of being helpless, does the government not have some responsibility to protect the children that I see out with their parents, walking beside them or sitting with a group of adults as cigarette smoke swirls about their young heads and enters their lungs? What about the babies in carriages and strollers pushed by parental hands clutching burning cigarettes, feeding nicotine to infants not yet old enough for solid food? Who will protect them if not the government, when their natural protectors are too blinded by addiction to recognize the dangers of their anti-social behavior? Who will protect non-addicted bar/restaurant employees if they are required to inhale smoke all day in order to make a living? Will their addicted patrons pay the medical -- and funeral -- bills of employees who contract lung disease on the job?

Today, we are fortunate to live in an age when medical research has identified so many threats to our health and safety, enabling us to stay healthy and live longer by avoiding hazards that once killed our ancestors at young ages. Some very enlightened countries (Singapore comes to mind) have acted on this modern knowledge and taken serious steps to make their environments as clean and safe as possible, i.e. smoke free. Others, however, have not and in many places in Asia, Eastern/Central Europe, Africa and South America, smoking is still rampant. But I cannot understand why a generally enlightened nation like Germany, with its long history of civilization and social progress, would even consider reversing its advancement when it comes to cigarette smoking.

Why not, instead, simply face reality: Some things we have done for years, decades, even centuries are simply not good for us or for our society. Nicotine is a lethal, addictive drug, and smoking cigarettes has no benefit whatsoever for anyone other than cigarette companies that get rich by giving us cancer and emphysema. The private “enjoyment of life” that the smoker demands comes at the expense of neighbors’ and children’s health. 

AFP Photo
Smoke rises from a lit cigar as another customer smokes a cigarette in the"Hemingway" bar in Erfurt, eastern Germany (2008)

So wake up, Germany! Let’s join the 21st century. The referendum we need is NOT one to “protect” the rights of nicotine addicts to smoke regardless of hazards to non-smokers. What we really need is a government-supported, organized effort to gather signatures on a petition to ban all public smoking. That’s right: If the nicotine addict chooses to smoke, let him/her do so inside the home, with windows closed to protect non-addicted neighbors. I seriously propose that anyone caught smoking anywhere in public should be arrested and fined for a first offense, should spend a night in jail for a second offense, and should serve a weekend in jail -- plus pay a fine -- for any offense thereafter. This would afford residents and tourists alike much greater “enjoyment of life” in the cities of Germany -- with its beautiful trees, canals, ports, and architecture -- but without the carpet of butts and the general stench of cigarettes that currently blight this wonderful country.

Bill Coleman/Expatica

Photos credit: robertDouglass; southgeist

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