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ZAGREB (Reuters Life!) - For more than one million of Croatia's smokers, the world turned upside down on Wednesday.
After decades of a lifestyle in which cigarettes were taken for granted, a smoking ban in all public places took effect, causing a major shock for the smoking population, which amounts to one third of the country's 4.4. million people.
Fines ranging from 1,000 kuna ($180) for smokers to 15,000 kuna, or three average monthly salaries, for owners of premises allowing it, made sure the law would be observed, at least in the early days.
"Today is day one and the club is empty. Everyone used to be smoking in here," said Davor Grubic, who runs a small cafe near the popular Komedija theater in downtown Zagreb.
"They should give restaurants and bars an option to decide whether they want to host smokers or non-smokers. This is not going to work," he predicted.
Cafes in downtown Zagreb, usually swarming with people, were deserted. Instead, smokers were puffing outside, wondering what to do when winter comes.
"I'll probably get pneumonia because I will be spending most of the time smoking outside," student Tijana Pivcevic said with a laugh.
In the past week, local newspapers have carried dozens of anti-smoking tips and no-smoking signs have been selling like hot cakes. Health officials say almost 13,000 people die of smoking in Croatia each year. Health Minister Darko Milinovic said it simply had to stop.
But most cafe and restaurant owners complained the ban would cripple their businesses and should have been delayed in times of recession, which has taken a heavy toll on the European Union candidate country.
"It is going to be bad for our business. We have more clients who are smokers than those who are not," said Verica Mesic, a waitress at the Moka cafe.
Nacional weekly gave smokers food for thought.
"They say that about 50 percent of fatal diseases are caused by smoking. That means from now on we'll be 50 percent immortal," Renato Baretic, himself a smoker, wrote in his column.
"Thank God I am going away for a month in Austria, smokers' last haven in the European Union," he added. So far, Croatia is the only Balkan country where smoking indoors in public has been effectively outlawed.
Neighboring Serbia nominally banned it in 1995 but the law has never been implemented. Stricter new regulations are expected by the end of the year.
Bosnia -- a country for which coffee and cigarettes are almost national symbols -- seems even worse off, with a recent study showing some 37 percent of its people are active smokers, twice the European average.
Additional reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic, Editing by Steve Addison