ATHENS – A photo of Greece’s Alternate Health Minister smoking at an anti-smoking press conference has gone viral, underscoring the problem of enforcing five ignored smoking bans in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of lighting up.
The event was the May 30 No Smoking Day and the picture of a tie-less, coat-less Pavlos Polakis – a surgeon – casually smoking set the Hellenic Anti-Cancer Institute to call on the ruling coalition led by his Radical Left SYRIZA and its partner the pro-austerity, far-right, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) to enforce the ban.
The former ruling coalition of the New Democracy Conservatives and its partner the PASOK Socialists said they would but didn’t, as have previous governments for the last 10 years.
The ban is supposed to cover – besides public buildings like the Health Ministry where Polakis smoked and the Parliament, where lawmakers smoke while passing anti-smoking laws – restaurants, bars, public places, children’s playgrounds, beaches and squares.
It isn’t enforced and people can smoke almost anywhere they want, including in hospitals, without having to worry about being caught or penalized. Students and teachers can smoke in schools.
The institute said the government should also require health warnings on packages of cigarettes to cover most of the surface despite evidence it deters hard-core smokers.
In a new campaign, the institute is trying to persuade smokers it would save them not just on health but in money and that if they don’t smoke it could bring them a pension of 760 euros ($846) a month when they retire.
The head of a state committee for curbing smoking in public places, Panagiotis Behrakis, said the government was a “passive observer of the most serious public health issue of the day,” Kathimerini reported.
Meanwhile Deputy Health Minister Theodoros Pelegrinis said smoking bans won’t work and that the mentality of young people has to be changed.
He said a recent survey of primary school students found 16.7 percent of respondents had tried smoking at least once, that 9.2 percent had smoked once in the past month while 30 percent are passive smokers in the home as their parents smoke.
The legal age for drinking and smoking in Greece is 18 but children are routinely observed buying cigarettes at kiosks and can buy beer there as well as no one checks.