Typically German?

Smoking Ban in Germany

Between autumn 2007 and the beginning of 2008, smoking bans will be coming into force in all of Germany's federal states. Smokers may at times find themselves facing somewhat confusing regulations – while uniform laws will apply in stations and official buildings, this will not be the case in pubs, restaurants and cafes, as these will be subject to state laws. A commentary by Roger Boyes.Smoking Ban; Copyright: Colourbox
Impossible to think of Germany without its curtain of tobacco. Marlene Dietrich in a smoke-free room? Ludwig Erhard without his cigar? For more than a century the sexiest actors and the sharpest brains were smokers; politicians stuffed and wadded their pipes in public to demonstrate they were Alpha-males. And now? A member of the fire brigade has to stand in a television studio if anyone even dares to reach for a box of matches. Actresses chew gum and politicians chew their nails. Perhaps that is progress.

Certainly Hitler would have been happy. One of the biggest surges of research into lung cancer came under the Nazis; he was a militant anti-smoker. “Everyone knew Hitler was dead in the bunker,” writes historian Norman Stone, “because one by one the orderlies and officers lit up their cigarettes that had previously been banned.” Lenin meanwhile seems to have pioneered the non-smoking train: he forced his fellow Bolsheviks to stub out their cigarettes when they travelled in the Sealed carriages from Switzerland to Russia to lead the revolution.

Well, you do not have to be a nasty dictator to want to ban smoking. Anyone who has spent time in a hospital waiting room knows that lung cancer is the most terrible disease; the haggard patients with their oxygen tanks draw pity even from other cancer victims. And there is no doubting – not even the powerful tobacco lobby does that any more – the connection between heavy smoking and cancer.

Marlene Dietrich; Copyright: Bundesbildstelle
Marlene Dietrich
There is, however, some doubt about the destructive effects of passive smoking on healthy, adult non-smokers. Children could be at risk, so could pregnant women. And the waitress who works ten hours in a closed all-smoking pub. Yet even these small risks can be reduced by the simple expedient of opening a window or installing a smoke disperser. There is no need, it seems to me, to construct an elaborate architecture of laws to protect the rights of a few waitresses who should be properly informed and compensated for their discomfort. Children should not be allowed inside pubs, not just because of the marginal health damage of breathing in someone else’s tobacco but because it could somehow glamorise alcohol for them. That is a far more potent danger.

Legislating so strictly, so restrictively, against a majority to protect a small minority against largely imaginary risks is, dare I say it, very German. It is like not building the Transrapid to Hamburg because it might disrupt nesting behaviour, or diverting an autobahn construction because it interferes with the migration path of frogs.

I know, of course, that waitresses are not frogs. But they are humans who can make informed choices. And I know too that this legislation is not typically German – it is part of a European Union initiative. But the smokers of Britain, Ireland and many other countries have been looking to Germany to take a stand against the non-smoking culture. Cynics say that German governments have been traditionally weak-kneed towards the tobacco industry – too much government revenue is made through selling cigarettes, too many jobs are dependent on this lucrative business. I like to think though that the German government is genuinely concerned about freedom of choice, more so than other countries. It is this freedom that has to be protected. Trains have managed well enough with smoker and non-smoker compartments for decades. Now smoking is completely banned – choice has disappeared and non-smokers have not gained anything.

Ludwig Erhard; Copyright: Bundesbildstelle
Ludwig Erhard
My instincts are libertarian. Governments, it seems to me, have an obligation to find alternative, more subtle ways of protecting minorities. Crudely legislating away personal freedom cannot be the answer unless there is a proven, overwhelming weight of evidence that passive smoking directly endangers a significant number of people. The new non-smoking laws are changing society. And not just because ash-trays are becoming collector’s items (thank Goodness I have stolen so many from pubs over the years – one day they will be worth a fortune and pay my medical bills). The legislation gives a perversely privileged status to the smokers. For years now the best gossip in an office has been exchanged in the groups of smokers who gather outside the buildings to puff on their hourly cigarettes. These smoker-cabals bring together workers from different departments who share a sense of being oppressed by the office bureaucracy. They return to work much better informed than their healthier colleagues who stayed anchored to their desks. Anti-smoking legislation creates a new Inside-Outside culture. Nowadays, every pub with more than five square metres of terrace space starts up a Biergarten. The smokers go outside, the non-smokers go inside. Somehow this seems to give a life-style advantage to the smokers, especially as pub-owners are investing massively in terrace-heaters. I dread to think what these monstrous heating machines are doing for global warming.

My point is this: anti-smoking legislation increasingly outlaws the smoker and restricts our life-style choices. But at the same time it gives to smoking a kind of underground glamour. For teenagers, smoking has never been more cool – they are defying not only parents and medical advice (boring!) but the state itself. And since most local councils cannot afford to hire smoking inspectors to patrol pubs and clubs, this act of rebellion carries no great legal risk. Suddenly every 17-year-old in Berlin seems to be a James Dean. And guess what? James Dean did not die of smoking.

Roger Boyes
is Germany correspondent for the London daily "Times". He has been living in Germany for 20 years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the Tagesspiegel. In his book 'My dear Krauts' he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour

Translation: Heike Cornelsen

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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