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Doctors challenge smokers' paradise

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Doctors challenge smokers' paradise
A traditional Vienna coffee house with ashtrays at every table. Photo: APA
12:08 CEST+02:00
A group of medical specialists has launched a Don’t Smoke campaign in Austria which will petition for a comprehensive smoking ban and greater protection for non-smokers.

The group, which includes oncologists, cardiologists, pediatricians and pulmonologists, is calling for a smoking ban in all cafes and restaurants, greater protection for minors by raising the age that young people can buy tobacco products to 18, and a higher tobacco tax.

"Every hour someone in Austria dies from the consequences of smoking and every eight hours someone dies from the effects of passive smoking," a statement on the Don't Smoke website reads. 

In Vienna's traditional coffee houses, tobacco-lovers can still light up pretty much as they please.

Even die-hard smokers, when arriving in Austria, are surprised by the clouds of blue haze filling bars and restaurants, long after the rest of western and central Europe stubbed out puffing in public places.

A partial smoking ban came into force in Austria in January 2009, but the list of exceptions was long.

Small cafes and eateries under 50 square metres (500 square feet) can ignore the ban, while larger establishments need only provide a non-smoking section.

Many punters simply prop the doors open and carry on puffing regardless, prompting self-proclaimed "sheriffs" to patrol the streets and file complaints.

"The current law was set up to fail," says Manfred Neuberger, a professor at Vienna's Medical University, who has led several studies on smoking bans in Europe and Austria.

The anti-smoking camp has been boosted by Austria's newly appointed health minister Sabine Oberhauser, who called for a total ban on smoking in public places within five years.

"I would like to finalise this now, agree to a transition period and have a total ban in place by a deadline - the aim being within five years," she said in a recent interview.

Her plan is likely to run into stiff resistance and she admits no decision will be taken without involving the hospitality industry, which strongly opposes a ban.

Many agree however it's time for some clarity. "This law we have, I find it pretty ridiculous: either you have a ban or you don't. This just doesn't suit anyone," said 38-year-old Roman, sat in the landmark Cafe Drechsler in central Vienna.

The Viennese institution was non-smoking for a year after a court ordered it to make the path to the toilets smoke-free, which would have required costly alterations.

However, due to a loss in business during the evening and night it has just created a smoker's zone, at a cost of €20,000. 

Even Vienna's General Hospital has a Tabak selling cigarettes right in the entrance.

Cigarettes are significantly cheaper in Austria than elsewhere in western Europe at an average of €4.90 (US$6.30) per pack, compared to €7 in France or €11 in Britain.

Austrians are the fourth-heaviest smokers in Europe, according to the latest Eurobarometer poll in 2012.

Thirty-three percent light up on a regular basis, compared to an EU average of 28 percent and far more than the French or Italians. Only Greeks, Bulgarians and Latvians smoke more.

Many observers believe a culture of government compromise bordering on indecisiveness is to blame for the slow moves towards a ban.

The Social Democrats and conservative People's Party (ÖVP) have ruled together almost continuously since 1945 - and both are liable to be swayed against a ban by the country's vocal smoker's lobby.

As a result, "it's difficult to impose anything," according to Karl Krajic, a sociologist and health expert with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Vienna.

Austria's Chamber of Commerce opposes a total ban in public places, saying restaurants and cafes invested close to €100 million to make alterations in line with the 2009 law.

But some in the sector are open to change.

"If there is a total ban, it will create a level playing field again for everybody," Cafe Drechsler's owner Robert Kollmann said.

Portions of this story were contributed by Agence France-Presse

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