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NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - One of the last bastions of smokers will be stubbed out when Cyprus joins the ranks of its European Union peers in a blanket ban on smoking on January 1.
At the stroke of midnight, Cypriots will be able to savor their last legal puff in public before being liable for on-the-spot fines or dragged to court if caught lighting up in a public place.
"As harsh as it may sound, it's an important new year gift to Cypriots," said Christos Patsalides, Cyprus's health minister.
Data suggests some 25 percent of Cypriots smoke, but many more are passive smokers -- surveys have shown children to have high levels of nicotine in their blood by being exposed to tobacco smoke virtually everywhere.
The law introduces a blanket ban on smoking in all public spaces, imposing on the spot fines of up to 37 euros ($53) or, if the case is taken to court, of up to 2,000 euros.
In the case of spot fines, police want the fine upped to 85 euros. Law enforcement authorities promise to be strict -- except on New Year's Eve because they do not want to be party poopers.
"I think some flexibility on New Year's Eve is warranted," said Michalis Katsounodos, a spokesman for Cypriot police. "After that it will be zero tolerance."
The new rules have left restaurant and nightclub owners fuming.
"This is the toughest law in Europe after England," said Phanos Leventis, general secretary of the restaurants and nightclub owners association, an industry group representing 3,500 businesses.
The ban tightens an existing law, introduced in 2002, which banned smoking in public places but allowed establishments to have proper ventilated spaces for smoking patrons.
Anti-smoking groups say it was precisely because that law was flouted that a tighter ban was warranted.
"We are not against smokers. They could be our children, our friends and colleagues. But we are against the habit of smoking and this law will help them see that they can go without a cigarette for one or two hours," said Stelios Sycallides of the Non-Smokers League.
But Leventis said the sector is already suffering a 40 percent decline in business this year as global economic turmoil hit Cyprus and more people were turning to cheaper forms of entertainment at home.
"This is just another blow to the industry," Leventis said.
Editing by Paul Casciato