June 25, 2006
Smoking ban meets resistance in “tolerant” Germany
By Noah Barkin
BERLIN (Reuters) - When a German magazine ran a story about
new efforts to ban public smoking, the reactions of many of its
non-smoking readers were fierce -- and surprising.
"I don't want to be deprived of the relaxed company of
smokers in restaurants and bars," wrote David Harnasch of
Freiburg in a letter to Der Spiegel weekly. "If my clothes
stink of smoke, I can wash them -- where exactly is the
Yvonne Deim from Munich wrote: "Sitting in a smoke-filled
room for a few hours bothers me less than it would if smokers
were forced to get up every few minutes to go smoke outside."
Governments across Europe are cracking down on smoking in
public places. But resistance to new limits is strong in
Germany, where the right to smoke became a cherished mark of
tolerance and freedom after World War Two.
Polls show a majority of the population and one in two
non-smokers opposed a proposed ban on smoking in restaurants
Some politicians have said the proposals are too draconian,
and Germany's powerful cigarette, restaurant and hotel lobbies
are working to ensure they never see the light of day.
Der Spiegel made clear where it stood by putting a picture
of a broken cigarette on its cover alongside the title "Smoking
-- The End of Tolerance."
Lother Binding, a member of the parliament and a former
smoker, stoked the debate by pressing for a new law that would
ban smoking in all public places.
Binding, 56, told Reuters he felt compelled to press for
stricter laws after reading a study from the Heidelberg-based
German Cancer Research Center, which laid out in stark terms
the dangers of "passive smoking" or second-hand smoke.
"That convinced me that the current law simply doesn't go
far enough," he said, referring to a two-year-old measure to
phase in no-smoking zones in hotels and restaurants.
Nearly one in three German adults smokes regularly and
close to 140,000 Germans die every year from tobacco-related
illnesses -- far more than from traffic accidents, alcohol,
drugs and AIDS combined. Some studies estimate that 3,000-4,000
deaths per year can be attributed to passive smoking.
Binding's proposed ban is designed to cut those numbers and
bring German law into line with many of its European partners.
Ireland imposed the world's first nationwide public smoking
ban in 2004. Italy, Sweden, Scotland, Norway and Spain have
followed suit in varying degrees. Belgium, Britain, Northern
Ireland and Portugal are expected to introduce tight new rules
But Binding faces a particularly daunting challenge in
Germany, where tobacco taxes bring in over 14 billion euros
($17.6 billion) annually and where the political class is
dominated by men and women of the "1968 generation" who fondly
associate smoking with notions of freedom and risk.
Germany is the only country in the European Union that has
ignored and actively fought a bloc ban on tobacco advertising.
German officials resisted imposing a smoking ban at World
Cup matches this summer, even though such a ban existed at the
2002 tournament and is already planned for the 2008 Olympic
Games in Beijing and 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The German railway operator Deutsche Bahn is one of the
last in Europe to allow smoking on its trains. Over 600,000
outdoor cigarette vending machines sit on German streets,
allowing people of all ages to buy packs 24 hours a day in a
country where normal store hours are strictly regulated.
Some politicians support Binding's proposal, notably
Agriculture and Consumer Protection Minister Horst Seehofer.
But others, including Social Democrat parliamentary leader
Peter Struck and leading conservative Wolfgang Bosbach, say a
ban in public places goes too far. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a
former pack-a-day smoker, has voiced support for tougher laws
but stopped short of endorsing an outright ban.
Robert Proctor, a professor at Stanford University and
author of the book "The Nazi War on Cancer," says one reason
the German anti-smoking movement is so weak is that it is
tainted by the Nazis' hostility to smoking.
The Luftwaffe banned smoking in 1938 and a year later SS
chief Heinrich Himmler did the same for all uniformed police
and SS officers. Under the Nazis, smoking was barred in many
workplaces, government offices, hospitals and rest homes.
Hitler, who didn't touch tobacco or alcohol, gave 100,000
Reichsmarks of his own money in 1941 to the world's first
institute dedicated to the dangers of tobacco. Led by avid
anti-smoker and anti-Semite Karl Astel, the institute produced
the first comprehensive study linking smoking and lung cancer.
"After the war, the tobacco industry capitalised on the
Nazi connection -- the idea that if Hitler did it then it must
be terrible," Proctor said. "The anti-smoking movement in
Germany was portrayed as intolerant and essentially fascist."
German per capita consumption of tobacco dropped by more
than half between 1940 and 1950. But under the Marshall Plan,
$1 billion of excess U.S. tobacco was shipped to Germany and
smoking rates soon rose back to pre-war levels as lighting up
became linked to new values of tolerance and freedom.
The tobacco industry still benefits from these
Reemtsma, a unit of Imperial Tobacco Group and the third
largest tobacco firm in Germany, said it opposed Binding's
proposed ban and believed current legislation struck a better
balance between the rights of smokers and non-smokers.
"We believe a general smoking ban is not the solution,"
said Reemtsma spokesman Sebastian Blohm. "There is no clear
evidence that passive smoking leads to serious health problems.
The risks are on a par with the risks to the brain from using
mobile telephones. Neither are significant."