Spanish smokers enjoy last puffs ahead of tough new law

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Smokers in Spain savoured the last hours in which they can legally light up in public places before a tough new law takes effect on Sunday, as anti-smoking campaigners rejoiced.

As of January 2, it is illegal to light up in bars, restaurants and cafes under the new legislation.

Spain has had an anti-smoking law since January 2006. It banned smoking in the workplace, on public transport and in shops, but is less restrictive than similar legislation in many European countries.

It allowed owners of bars, restaurants and cafes to decide whether to ban smoking or not. Most, faced with a drop in business, naturally chose to permit their customers to light up.

The new law now means Spain, a country with a strong cafe culture where many consider a cigarette along with a drink and some tapas in their local bar as an inalienable right, will have one of the strictest anti-smoking laws in Europe.

The new measures come nearly seven years after Ireland became the first European country to outlaw smoking in public places, a move that unleashed a domino effect across the continent in favour of smoke-free bars and cafes.

Asked what he thought of the new measures, Esteban Calderon Torres, a 59-year-old lawyer and long-time smoker, put his index finger to his temple and made the sound of gun going off.

"It's stupid," he said as he enjoyed a cigarette and some red wine in a crowded bar in central Madrid.

"The solution is to have bars where children are not allowed," he said.

His wife, Ana Alcon Oliviera, predicted many in Spain would not stand for it.

"It's a passing thing, it won't last," she said. "People in Spain like to spend an afternoon in a bar."

Added her husband: "People aren't going to go into a bar where you can't smoke."

But Jose Munez, a 58-year-old businessman and non-smoker, described the new law as "very civilized".

"It's good for the health of people in general, for workers, for waiters," he said in a smokey Madrid sandwich bar.

He predicted many "will protest" but "people in Spain slowly adjust to new laws".

Anti-smoking campaigners are predictably overjoyed.

"This year, 2011, I can say the Three Wise Men have brought a great gift for Spain: the publication of this new law," said Jose Luis Diaz-Maroto Munoz, a family doctor and expert in the effects of smoking.

He said it would discourage children taking up the habit, encourage smokers to quit and "allow us all to breathe air that is not polluted by smoke".

Health Minister Leire Pajin has backed the law as "a decisive step in the defence of the health of the Spanish people".

She said it could even be a boon for bars and restaurants as it would encourage non-smokers, especially those with families, to go out more.

But the Spanish Hotel and Catering Association (FEHR) believes that restaurants and nightclubs will suffer a drop in sales from 5.0 to 15 percent, just as the country is struggling to emerge from the economic crisis.

© 2011 AFP

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