Austria tiring of being ‘ashtray of Europe’

Austria is tiring of its reputation as "the ashtray of Europe" -- at least according to the results of a nationwide petition backing a ban on smoking in cafes and restaurants.

Austria tiring of being 'ashtray of Europe'
Guests puff on cigarettes in a Vienna bar. Photo: AFP

Pressure is now mounting on Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) to drop its opposition to a referendum on the issue after the petition organised by Austria's medical association garnered 881,569 signatures.

The result, which represents 14 percent of the electorate and more than 10 percent of the population overall, is the seventh largest for a petition of its kind, according to public radio Ö1.

Austria is one of the last European countries where smoking is still permitted in bars and restaurants despite calls for bans dating back 13 years, prompting anti-smoking groups to dub it the “ashtray of Europe”.

That looked as though it would change when in 2015 the previous government — a “grand coalition” of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) and centre-right People's Party (ÖVP) — voted through a ban that was meant to take effect in May this year.

However, after elections in October 2017, the FPÖ and its leader Heinz-Christian Strache — himself a keen smoker — made dropping the ban a condition of joining a coalition with the ÖVP of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

As a result, smoking in bars and restaurants stayed legal as long as it was done in a separate area — although this rule is not always rigidly implemented.

No separate area is necessary in establishments smaller than 50 square metres (540 square feet) if the owner is happy to allow smoking on the premises.

The situation is an “aberration” which is “contrary to the trend across the rest of the world”, according to the medical association, which stresses that 13,000 people die each year in Austria from smoking-related causes.

According to Eurostat, 30 percent of Austrians over the age of 15 smoke — the third-highest proportion in the EU — and it has some of the EU's cheapest cigarettes.

'Election campaign joke' 

The impressive level of support for the anti-smoking petition has put the FPÖ in an awkward position: the party has said it is keen to promote “direct democracy” but has consistently refused to entertain a referendum on the smoking issue.

“If the call for direct democracy is more than just an election campaign joke, the government has to allow a referendum,” said new SPÖ leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner.

The FPÖ has put its own gloss on the results of the petition.

According to prominent FPÖ MP Walter Rosenkranz, the high level of participation “demonstrated a desire for more direct democracy among the population”.

At the same time, party leader Strache stressed that “more than 85 percent” of voters did not sign the petition and that it had not achieved the threshold of 900,000 beyond which the party had promised a referendum at some point 
after 2021.

However, the Austrian press largely echoed the Kronen Zeitung tabloid when it said “it will be difficult for the FPÖ to explain why they're not organising a referendum straight away”.

Several prominent ÖVP politicians have also come out in favour of a referendum, including the mayors of Graz and Salzburg.

Even though he was also part of the previous government that backed the law, Chancellor Kurz has maintained a studied silence on the issue.

Strache, who is also vice-chancellor, claims the current setup maintains “freedom of choice” and protects “the interests of non-smokers, smokers and restaurateurs”.

However, a growing number of establishments are themselves becoming smoke-free.

The country's Economic Chamber, which represents businesses, says that “not a single establishment set up this year has set aside a smoking area”.


Austrian Families Minister wants smoking ban for under-18s

Austria’s Minister for Families, Sophie Karmasin, wants to ban smoking for young people under the age of 18. Currently, smoking is legal in Austria from the age of 16.

Austrian Families Minister wants smoking ban for under-18s
File photo: Wikimedia Commons

Austria has one of the highest rates of smoking among teenagers and young adults in Europe, with 52 percent of men aged 18 to 28 smoking, and 34 percent of women.

Only Greeks, Bulgarians and Latvians smoke more than Austrians, according to a 2012 Eurobarometer study.

Austria is one of the last countries to allow smoking from the age of 16. Karmasin told the Austria Press Agency that she has already been in talks with Austria’s provincial governors on changing the law as part of the Youth Protection Act.

A survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that 27 percent of Austrian 15-year-olds smoke at least once a week, more frequently than any other children in the OECD area – something Karmasin said was “unacceptable”.

She said that a ban on smoking for under-18s would send an important signal, although she didn’t elaborate on what the consequences would be for those who break the law.

Austria is one of the countries in western Europe where cigarettes are cheapest. The country has a deeply entrenched smoking culture, and a general ban on smoking in cafes and restaurants doesn’t come into force until May 2018.  Meanwhile, there is a ban on vaping products for people under 18.

Karmasin tried to bring in a smoking ban for under-18s two years ago, but it was shot down by Vice Chancellor and ÖVP head Reinhold Mitterlehner. He said such a measure was “not necessary”. However, Karmasin is optimistic that she can get the backing for a ban this year, and said that the “health argument” trumps all others.