October 17, 2008 / 5:35 PM / in 9 years

Smoking still thrives in Balkans, but for how long?

ZAGREB (Reuters Life!) - Many Western visitors to the Balkans are dismayed to see taxi drivers or office clerks light up at work. Smoking is almost a way of life here, but the trend is starting to change.

Croatia -- where almost 13,000 people, the size of a small town -- die of smoking each year, became the first to take more concrete steps on Friday, when parliament passed a tough new anti-smoking bill.

The law banning cigarettes from all public places takes effect almost immediately, a move certain to displease almost one third of the European Union candidate country’s 4.4 million people who smoke. Only cafe and restaurant owners will have a six-month transition period.

The law also restricts any smoking-related media campaigns.

“We want to do something for our health and catch up with European standards,” Health Minister Darko Milinovic told parliament when presenting the bill this month.

The World Health Organization said in a report this year smoking bans were an effective way of improving health. A ban enforced in Italy in 2005, for example, has led to a sharp fall in heart attack rates, by 11 percent, researchers said.

So, the ban is likely to improve quality of life here, but will almost certainly impact cafe owners, who depend very much on smoking clientele, but face a fine of up to 150,000 kuna ($28,180) if found in violation.

Mate Vrkic, 49, owner of a small cafe squeezed among stands at an open air market in Zagreb, is already despairing.

“Business is already pretty thin. At least half of my guests smoke and if I lose another 20 regulars, I’ll stop making any profit,” he said.

“I have never smoked so when everyone lights up in here, the smoke is killing me. But for business, it will be a disaster.”

REST OF BALKANS LAGS BEHIND

Neighboring Serbia nominally banned smoking in public places in 1995 but the law has never been implemented and smokers can be seen everywhere in its sprawling capital Belgrade.

The health ministry has announced more restrictions and higher fines, but has yet to send a new law to legislators.

Bosnia -- a country for which coffee and cigarettes are almost a trademark sign -- seems even worse off.

A recent study showed that some 37 percent of Bosnians are active smokers, twice the European average. The country also has the biggest number of passive smokers in Europe, with about 95 percent of children aged 13-15 exposed to passive smoking in their homes.

Bosnia has strong tobacco lobbies and tobacco manufacturers sponsor sports clubs and events. Cigarettes are cheap and available to all, although it is illegal to sell them to minors. The cheapest pack cost only 1 Bosnian marka ($0.7).

Fines for smoking range from 500 to 2,000 Bosnian marka ($365 to $1,460) but in practice only restaurants are inspected and fined.

“We are definitely a smoking nation. We do have laws in line with the European Union standards but we do no respect them,” said Aida Ramic, a doctor in a Sarajevo-based institute for public health.

Additional reporting by Ljilja Cvekic in Belgrade and Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo

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