Tough anti-smoking measures split Croatia
Owners of Croatian drinking holes fear the new ban on public smoking has come at the worst possible time for their businesses, with the country already grappling with the global financial crisis.
Zagreb -- Home to some of Europe's most die-hard smokers, Croatia now has one of the strictest anti-tobacco laws in the Balkans region and not everyone is happy about it.
"I am aware that cigarettes are not good for health and can bother others but this is my luxury, a moment of relaxation," said Zeljko, a 40-year-old male nurse, sitting outside a Zagreb cafe.
"In the Balkans, it is also a question of mentality," he boasted, brandishing a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
The World Health Organization backs this up. Thirty to 40 percent of all adults in the Balkans are inveterate smokers, its figures show, hooked on a habit the WHO -- which marks "World No Tobacco Day" on Sunday -- considers a major cause of premature death.
But owners of Croatian drinking holes fear the new ban on public smoking has come at the worst possible time for their businesses, with the country already grappling with the global financial crisis.
The law, which bans smoking inside all public places including bars and restaurants, went into effect in May.
It echoes standards adopted by the European Union which Croatia hopes to join by 2011.
Cafes, bars and nightclubs are expected to be the worst affected, said Zlatko Puntijar, head of the national association gathering around 16,000 owners in the industry who employ some 100,000 people.
"The drop in business figures will maybe not be so important for the time being, but in autumn it will certainly be enormous.
"Managers are affected by both the economic crisis and the new law," he said, forecasting that some businesses could be threatened with closure at the end of the summer when cooler temperatures force customers inside.
In Croatia, some 32 percent of the 4.4 million inhabitants are smokers, according to survey figures the health ministry cited this month.
But some clients at the Mala Kavana coffee shop on Zagreb's main Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica square, like 65-year-old pensioner Ana, see the anti-smoking measures as a breath of fresh air.
"This law is aimed at saving non-smokers. My whole life I was forced to accept something I hate," Ana said as she sipped her coffee.
With the sun beaming down on Mala Kavana's vast terrace, owner Branko Kleskovic was happy about another day of strong sales ahead of what he fears will become a "nightmare" business climate when the good weather ends.
Inside his coffee shop is almost deserted, with most clients sitting outside on a terrace that can accommodate some 140 people.
"The number of clients has not dropped yet. But, this is because they are all on the terrace. We will not see them any more in winter," Kleskovic said.
"This law was adopted in a hurry and it should be amended. It is no good for we who live off our clients, 80 percent of whom are smokers."
Mala Kavana has some 15 employees, and Kleskovic hopes he will not be forced to lay them off when summer ends.
Asked about the future, Nevenka Pralas, who has run the Mocca coffee shop in downtown Zagreb for the past 17 years, points with resignation to her empty premises.
"We will be forced to close in winter if things do not change. Either we will leave or we will try to run some other business, since our losses will not be 30 percent but 70 percent," she said.
"As a non-smoker I believe this is a good law. However, for a bar owner it is a disaster!"
In Croatia, tobacco is blamed for killing some 10,000 people each year while an additional 3,000 die from passive smoking, according to the health ministry.
Annual health costs in treating the consequences of smoking are estimated at 422 million euros (more than 570 million dollars).
WHO's theme for this year's "World No Tobacco Day" focuses on health warnings printed on cigarette packets, with the WHO encouraging pictures designed to encourage smokers to quit.
Croatian packs feature a bold text alerting citizens that "Smoking Kills", but they are yet to carry any of the gruesome images seen mainly in some parts of western Europe.