Greece’s Thank You for Not Smoking: Butts Out Now


(Photo by Eurokinissi/ Tatiana Bollari)

We’ll find out if Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ war on smoking and enforcing a long-ignored ban is real if an inspector (better bring an armed cop) walks down to the Parliament office of Radical Left SYRIZA lawmaker Pavlos ‘Chain Smoker’ Polakis and makes him either stop or slaps him with a fine, but expect a cloud of smoke back in your face.

Polakis was the former alternate health minister infamous for smoking where he wanted, in the health ministry, dancing away at nightclubs with a butt in one hand, and even at a No Smoking Day news conference, unashamedly puffing away and daring anyone to stop him.

He’s a surgeon so should know better but doesn’t, and his attitude has been that of smokers in Greece who think only they have rights and can light up almost anywhere they want, including in public places like bars, taverns, clubs, and coffee shops where smoking has allegedly been banned for 10 years with no government enforcing it, fearing the loss of voters just as establishments fear the loss of customers – although more people don’t smoke.

A former New Democracy government didn’t crack down, but by all accounts so far it looks like Mitsotakis might be the one who finally does, if Polakis and others in Parliament – where workers were exempted from austerity measures – have a self-declared Republic of Smoking and Defiance.

During a presentation of his plan at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center he hailed it as a “bold initiative for protecting public health” that would “modernize and refine public life,” and saying that, “the enemy is tobacco smoke, not smokers,” vowing to finally enforce the No Smoking law passed in 2009.

For whatever reason, the crackdown began not outside the doors of Parliament or Syntagma Square, where clouds of smoke drift up from places where people are eating or drinking, or in post offices and civil servant offices where they surreptitiously puff away. It started in the central Greek town of Lamia where a customer in a cafe was fined 50 euros ($55.11) for smoking and the owner 100 euros ($100.22) for letting him. That’s it? One customer and one cafe owner? You think that’s going to cut it? It sounds a lot like the annual assault on tax evasion on Mykonos where bars and restaurants making thousands of euros a day and don’t report it are fined hundreds of euros and allowed to keep operating.

So the No Smoking ban won’t be taken seriously until there are scores, or hundreds, of fines to show it’s real and there’s a cost in defying the law that has been ignored.

The fines apply to closed office areas, all public transport, airports, train and bus stations, cafes, restaurants, bars and public service offices. Fines for those smoking in open-air leisure areas for children such as playgrounds as well as closed venues rise to 200 euros ($221).

The inspection followed a call at the 1142 hotline established for people to report those violating the ban, giving people a way to avoid confrontations.

The plan includes sending police as needed to help enforce the ban and they might be needed in some places like big clubs featuring ear-cracking dog music and hundreds of customers dancing and smoking, some very likely drunk who won't take kindly to being fined.

Nikos Louvros, the head of Greece’s Smokers Rights Party – which congregates at the Bohemian-style cafe Booze Cooperativa – told the British newspaper The Times the crackdown won’t work. “Don’t bet on it,” he said.

A World Population Review ranked Greece 3d in the world for smoking, with 42.65 percent of the population lighting up, ranking only behind the Pacific Ocean Republics of Kiribati and Nauru.

But the American College of Greece’s Public Health Institute and the Hellenic Cancer Society said it had declined to 27.5 percent over the last decade, said Kathimerini, with people apparently heeding the dangers and listening to public education campaigns.

If true, it’s even more reason for the law to be enforced with a survey (cafe owners, pay attention to this audience you’re missing) finding that 75 percent of people support the ban.

There will be no let-up, Alternate Health Minister Vassilis Kontozamanis said, pledging no exemptions. Some large nightclubs and other venues had asked to be excluded because they have allowed smoking in defiance of the law, but Kontozamnis said that wouldn’t happen.

“We all know that governments in the past did not dare to fully enforce the law,” Kontozamanis told SKAI. “Things have changed.”

Asked whether any concessions could be granted for casinos, betting shops and nightclubs – where opposition to change has been most vehement – Kontozamanis said there would be no exceptions.

“If we start with the loopholes, the law won’t be enforced,” he said. He added that the government’s key aim was not to raise revenue but to protect public health. “It is the state’s duty to protect, to inform, to warn people, and that’s what we’re doing with the full ban on smoking,” he said.

Saying it kills 20,000 people a year at a cost of one billion euros annually, Mitsotakis said the plan would work because he won't stop until it does. If enforcement stops, it will go up in smoke. Start with Polakis.