Europe

Austrians fear smoking ban threat to cafe culture

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Media captionBethany Bell visits a Vienna cafe

After years of debate, Austria's government has announced plans to introduce a total smoking ban in cafes and restaurants by 2018.

Anti-smoking groups say that is too long to wait, but there have been protests by some restaurant owners, who say their business will suffer.

Austrians like order, or "Ordnung" as they say in German. It is hugely frowned upon for a pedestrian to cross the road on a red light. And the streets and underground network of Vienna are kept remarkably clean.

But smoky air in cafes and restaurants has been widely tolerated for years.

Cafe culture

"Smoking is a sort of culture, especially in Austria," Margit Schwed told me as she sat in Cafe Ritter in Vienna, with its gilt chandeliers and marble table tops.

"In the typical Vienna Kaffeehaus you take your coffee and your cigarette. I think people like the flair in the coffee houses."

Austria has one of the highest rates of smoking in Europe, particularly among young people: 33% of Austrians smoke regularly, according to a 2012 Eurobarometer study. Only Greeks, Bulgarians and Latvians smoke more.

Image caption Austria has one of the highest rates of smoking in Europe
Image caption Smoking in cafes and restaurants has been widely tolerated for years

A survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that 27% of Austrian 15-year-olds smoke at least once a week, more frequently than any other children in the OECD area.

Several years ago, when many countries had already banned smoking in bars and cafes, Austria first adopted the idea of introducing separate smoking and non-smoking areas.

Small restaurants could choose whether to go smoke-free or not.

Larger restaurants, like Cafe Ritter, were obliged to provide a separate smoking section, sealed off by glass partitions.

The law was heavily criticised by doctors and anti-smoking groups as half-hearted and badly enforced.

Protests

Earlier this year, after the death of a prominent anti-smoking journalist from lung cancer, Austria's coalition government of the Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party announced plans to bring in a total ban on smoking in restaurants, cafes and bars by 2018.

"We have finally arrived in Europe with anti-smoking protection," Health Minister Sabine Oberhauser said.

Image caption The Austrian government plans to bring in a total ban on smoking in bars, cafes and restaurants by 2018

However there were protests from the far-right Freedom Party and from Austria's Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber of Commerce opposes the ban, because it says restaurants and cafes invested around €100m ($109m; £714m) to install ventilation systems and glass partitions to accommodate the separate smoking areas.

The economy minister, Reinhold Mitterlehner, has said their interests will be taken into account.

At Cafe Ritter, one of the waiters, Michael Schneider, told me the smoking ban should be brought in as soon as possible.

"Working in the smoke is bad for the health of me and my colleagues," he said.

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