BERLIN/PARIS (Reuters) - For years, anyone needing a nicotine fix in a German pub or French cafe didn’t even have to light up — the air was already so full of smoke that they only had to open their mouth and inhale.
But that all changes on Tuesday when strict new bans take effect in two of Western Europe’s final bastions for smokers, Germany and France. There was long and fierce resistance to the prohibitions on tobacco that other countries imposed.
“When I have a beer I want to smoke, and if I can’t smoke here anymore, I won’t come anymore,” said Hans Dorsmann, 60, a Berlin salesman summing up a gloom-filled view that has made countless small pub operators fear for their businesses.
“It’s a stupid law that will hit the little people,” he said in a Berlin corner pub where the faces of 10 smokers on the 10 barstools were veiled in clouds of smoke. A pub owners’ lobby calls the ban unconstitutional and plans a legal challenge.
Even though smoking bans led to increased pub and restaurant business in other countries, the argument seemed to fall on deaf ears in Germany and France, where any infringement of the right to smoke was sometimes viewed as an attack on freedom.
From January 1 smoking will be banned in pubs and restaurants in 11 of Germany’s 16 states — exemptions given only to those with separate closed-off rooms. Most other states will follow during the course of 2008.
In France, smoking in shops, offices and other public places has been banned since February 1, but a special exemption for bars and cafes has been in place until January 1.
Smoke-filled bars loved by moody left bank existentialists and melancholy film noir gangsters may be long gone but the ban will mean a huge readjustment in the way people think of cafes.
Millions of French relish their morning “cafe clope” (coffee and cigarette) taken standing at a bar on the way to work and the thought of having to change has been unsettling for many.
“I don’t know, it won’t be the same at all,” said Alain Filipetti, an electrician, as he nursed an “express” and dragged on a cigarette in a cafe near the Paris stock exchange. “I’ve always started the day with a coffee and a cigarette.”
With some 15 million smokers in France, there has been plenty of outrage at the new law that foresees fines of 68 euros on smokers and up to 750 euros for cafe managers.
“There’s no stopping now. Soon they’ll ban alcohol and you’ll need to bring in your latest blood tests to eat in a restaurant,” said Francis Attrazic, vice president of the hospitality industry association UMIH.
Almost a third of Germans smoke. Restaurants and pubs long fought tenaciously against regulations on smoking, in part due to economic reasons but also because of the country’s Nazi past.
Lighting up became a cherished post-war mark of freedom and tolerance after a smoking crackdown by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in the 1930s and there was long a reluctance among German politicians to force through a ban.
“You need the smoke and stench of it all in here otherwise it wouldn’t feel right,” said Christian Schultz, 47, sipping a beer in a smoky, smelly pub at the Zoo rail station in Berlin.
“The smoke in the air is a key ingredient to give it the right ambience.”
His wife Ute, 44, added: “I don’t understand who caused the fuss. Non-smokers knew these places were full of smoke and were free to avoid them. Now where are we going to go?”
The small family-owned pubs were long a safe haven for smokers in Germany, a cherished nicotine-filled refuge that seemed immune to the forces of the anti-smoking crusades.
“A lot of these places are going to go bankrupt,” said Oliver Resch, 38, an office worker enjoying a schnaps and beer with his pack of cigarettes. “If I can’t smoke here with Hans and Fritz, what’s the point of coming in?”
Luca Franchini, 29, a chain-smoking Italian office clerk, said he savored his visits to Germany after smoking was banned in indoor public places in Italy three years ago.
“I really enjoyed coming here to be able smoke freely,” Franchini said. “It’s too bad it’ll be gone here too.”
Editing by Peter Millership