ATHENS – Surrendering to smokers, Greece has essentially stopped enforcing a half dozen smoking bans in a country where the Alternate Health Minister, Pavlos Polakis, lit up during a No Smoking Day conference – in the ministry – and where the law is flouted openly.
It’s no secret and news stories occasionally report on the laws being ignored almost everywhere, including in schools, post offices, on public transport, hospitals, restaurants, cafes, and public buildings.
In a feature, the French news agency Agence France-Presse became the latest to outline the mocking of the laws that is so commonplace few are even shocked anymore although non-smokers are a majority in a country with one of the highest smoking rates in the world.
AFP wrote that George Balafoutis, who returned to Greece from New York in 2017, was so shocked to see that 10 years of No Smoking laws had done almost nothing that he designed a website to let non-smokers know where they could go to eat or drink without being under a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“After so many medical studies on (the harmful effects of) passive smoking, it’s unacceptable for smokers to keep on ignoring the health of pregnant women and children,” he told AFP.
Balafoutis’ website, akapnos.gr, currently lists more than 400 smoke-free establishments but he said he knows he’s tilting at windmills because Greeks will smoke where they want and as restaurant owners cater to them.
“Restaurant and club owners are afraid of losing smoking customers, and politicians are afraid of losing votes,” he said. Despite the ubiquitous fumes, he said he came home because he missed Greece and family and friends.
In 2009, Greece banned smoking in indoor public places, instituted stiff fines and created a complaints hotline and after a show demonstration of getting tough, stopped enforcing it and now there’s almost nowhere you can go without being subjected to smokers.
Nikos Louvros, an Athens bar owner and proponent of smokers’ rights, put ashtrabs on the table of his Booze Cooperativa bar, ignoring the law and getting away with it as inspectors who are supposed to be making visits and imposing fines have just about vanished.
“It makes sense not to smoke in a hospital but when you’re having fun, you should have the choice of going somewhere where you can smoke,” he said, without caring what non-smokers would prefer.
He founded a smokers’ political party after the 2009 law was passed even though there were so many loopholes that it allowed smoking in places that were supposed to have no smoking areas too.
In Greece, 72 percent of licensed establishments are restaurants that allow smoking, the highest figure in the European Union, according to a 2017 Eurobarometer study and some 37 percent of Greeks smoke, compared to an EU average of 26 percent, it found.
The issue came to light – or smoke – earlier this year when European Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said he was shocked to see smoking in the Health Ministry and the photo of Polakis smoking there – as well as in nightclubs, telling Andriukaitis to butt out.
“It’s shameful! This guy knows nothing about health,” Greek daily Kathimerini quoted Andriukaitis as saying. Polakis, a veteran surgeon, scornfully replied on Facebook: “I’ll quit when I choose to… ok “guy”???”.
The 2009 anti-smoking law carries a fine of 50-500 euros ($56-$562) for an individual, and 500-1,000 ($562-$1123 for the establishment where the infraction occurred but there’s no reports of anyone fined.
“In the end, we will join the ranks of civilised nations… what are we, the idiots of Europe?” then Health Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos – now EU migration commissioner – said when the law was passed but he didn’t enforce it either.
The mayor of Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris – a chain smoker – said the law should be respected and enforced but won’t. “We are the only country in the world where laws are not respected because that’s just how we feel like.”