Greece fires up anti-smoking ban amid confusion
A 2008 law banning smoking in public places officially came into effect Wednesday, as the country’s health minister spoke of a “new era.”Athens -- Wielding high fines, Greece's health ministry on Wednesday launched a nationwide smoking ban -- the third this decade -- in a bid to eliminate the habit in Europe's most nicotine-addicted nation.
As a 2008 law banning smoking in public places officially came into effect, Health Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos proudly spoke of a "new era".
"The curtain has risen on a new era, as of today establishments are smoke-free and nobody will smoke anywhere," he told state television NET.
"In the end, we will join the ranks of civilised nations," he said. "What are we, the idiots of Europe?".
Under the new legislation smoking will -- again -- be banned in hospitals, schools, in public vehicles and in all public spaces.
But after two prior efforts this decade, and anti-smoking laws dating to the mid-19th century, many Greeks do not share Avramopoulos' optimism.
The first day of the law saw a mixed reception with some premises only serving smokers outdoors but others carrying on as usual.
"We have applied for a smoking permit but it will take time, so for now we do not allow smoking indoors," said Effie, a central Athens cafe waitress.
Some are already trying to find ways to bend the rules.
"Before the ban we were smoking in the corridors and nobody complained, so I guess we'll do the same," said an employee at state broadcaster ERT.
Critics note that ambiguity and loopholes in the new law threaten to render it little more than a smoke screen.
"In a society that has learned to be undisciplined -- as is the state itself to its own rules -- any general ban is impossible to implement," noted a sceptical Eleftherotypia daily.
The health ministry, whose website crashed on Wednesday, insisted the ban is general and that exceptions will come later.
But many operators are unwilling to shoulder the cost of remodelling their businesses if the rules are going to change again.
And a number of loopholes are already causing confusion.
After a last-minute amendment to the law, companies with more than 50 employees were allowed to set up dedicated smoking areas on their premises.
The ban also does not apply to all cafes and bars. Premises over 70 square metres (750 square feet) will be allowed to create small smoking areas, as long as they remain "totally separate".
Establishments under that size must choose whether to stick with smoking or go entirely tobacco-free.
"We will try this measure out for six months and do not be surprised if we expand it further," Avramopoulos said.
Called to navigate through a fresh tangle of red tape and revamp their businesses under regulations that could change again in six months, many cafe and restaurant owners prefer to wait and gauge the public's reaction.
"This law is such a mess that it cannot be enforced. It's an idiotic measure," said Nikos Louvros, a central Athens club owner who reacted to the law by founding a new smokers' rights party.
"If they want to do something serious, why don't they raise the price of cigarettes," he wondered.
Efforts to kick the habit are hardly new. To Vima daily on Wednesday published an 1856 royal decree dating from the reign of Bavarian-born King Otto that forbade the use of pipes and cigarettes in public offices and shops.
Over a century later, 42 percent of the population smokes and around 20,000 Greeks die a year from tobacco-related ailments according to ministry figures.
Still, the ministry claims that 83 percent of Greeks applaud the measure and is already talking about a possible upgrade in January 2010.
More than 50 special inspectors have been hired to enforce the measure.
"The only way the ban will work is if they enforce it when Greeks go out for entertainment. Because it's more a habit than an addiction," said Gerassimos, a 30-year-old graduate student.
Smokers breaking the rules face fines of up to 500 euros (700 dollars), while bar owners can be fined up 2,000 euros and lose their licences for repeat offences.
Outdoor tobacco advertising will also be banned as of September.