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ZAGREB (Reuters Life!) - The Croatian government moved Thursday to loosen a controversial public smoking ban enforced only four months ago, after cafe owners complained it was crippling business.
According to a new proposal, due in parliament later this month, smoking in cafes will be allowed in special spaces that must be larger than 10 square meters (12 sq yards) but must not cover more than 20 percent of the overall premises.
The cafes unable to meet those conditions will be able to cater for smokers if they secure a proper ventilation system, a change likely to be welcomed by the country's more than one million smokers, or almost 25 percent of the population.
The smoking ban remains in force for restaurants, hospitals, schools and airports.
Cafe and restaurant owners launched a petition in June, at the start of the summer tourist season, demanding changes to the law, enforced in May, which they said was hurting business already weakened by a recession.
Health Minister Darko Milinovic told a cabinet session the changes were jointly drafted by the guild of cafe and restaurant owners and the tourism ministry.
"We are not changing the law under pressure and we remain committed to preserving the health of Croat citizens," Milinovic said. Health officials say more than 13,000 people die of smoking in Croatia every year.
During the last four months, Croatia has been the only Balkan country where smoking indoors has been effectively outlawed. With the latest changes, the smoking regime will be almost as liberal as in the rest of the region.
Croatia has been severely hit by the global crisis and its economy is expected to shrink around five percent this year, for the first time in a decade.
Reporting by Igor Ilic, editing by Paul Casciato