Germany and I have a long history when it comes to cigarette smoke. Ever since my first visit to Germany — oh those many years ago — I have loved the many differences and unique characteristics of life in Europe as compared to the USA… except for one thing. Smoking.
For many years it was almost impossible for a non-smoker like me to avoid “Qualm” — clouds of cigarette smoke almost everywhere you went. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, just about the only non-smoking zones were on German trains in the “Nichtraucher” cars. (In Spain they also had non-smoking coaches, but no one paid any attention to them! I really appreciated law-abiding Germans on that trip.) Those were also the days when you could still smoke on an airplane, making even the flight over the Atlantic an unpleasant introduction to Europe. Even though cigarette/tobacco advertising has been banned on German radio and television since 1975 (but not in print publications), it seemed like almost everyone smoked. Of course, even in the US, there was more smoking than today, but there were also more smoke-free zones.
New arrivals in Germany today have no idea how bad it was in the 1960s or ’70s and even up into the 1990s. Long after the US had non-smoking sections in restaurants (before a total ban in many states), the Germans did not even understand the concept of a non-smoking section. Of course, you usually could be smoke-free on public transport and in cinemas or theaters, but that was about it. In the 1990s airports were added to the list of smoke-free areas.
Europe in general had a different, more positive attitude about smoking than that in the United States. I remember being shocked when France beat Germany to the non-smoking punch in 1993. (But if you understand France, you know that the French law restricting smoking in bars and restaurants was largely ignored. But in 2007 France also prohibited smoking in public places, including offices and schools.)
In Germany, as in the US, smoking laws and regulations are a purview of the states (Länder). (There is a nationwide ban on smoking in German federal government buildings.) On March 22, 2007, Germany’s 16 federal states agreed to ban smoking in restaurants and pubs, but allowed exemptions for small bars and premises with separate smoking rooms. The laws in the various Länder vary. Berlin (which is also a German state) banned smoking in all public spaces, including offices and schools. Bavaria, which had introduced the strictest smoking ban in Germany, later made an exception for Oktoberfest. But ever since 2007, there have been court challenges and a lot of griping and backtracking. Fines for violations range from €5 to €1,000, but enforcement is typically German: lax.
Germans have many justifications for continuing to allow smoking, but my favorite is the “Hitler excuse.” Because of an earlier crackdown on smoking by the Nazi regime, some Germans see fascist elements in any attempts by the government to regulate smoking. (Interestingly, the fascists Mussolini, Franco, and der Führer were all non-smokers, while Churchill, FDR, and Stalin liked to puff away.) You’ll even see letters-to-the-editor from German non-smokers who claim they love being in a smoky environment! Please bring on that second-hand smoke! It’s an amazing live-and-let-die attitude that Americans find baffling. German cigarette packs bear the same “cigarettes can kill you” warnings seen in the US, but the German warnings seem to have even less impact than those in the US.
The German Hotel and Restaurant Association (Dehoga) claims that smoking bans hurt business and cheers every time there is a set-back for state anti-smoking laws. But the biggest reason for Germany being one of the last European countries to crack down on smoking is the powerful German tobacco lobby — and the fact that Germany annually collects over 14 billion euros in tobacco taxes. Germany is the only EU country left that does not ban all tobacco advertising, and it has introduced smoking bans reluctantly, only with kicking and screaming.
In February 2009, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the smoking bans in bars were being very weakly enforced by the authorities, and in many places the ban was not observed at all. In the end, said the magazine, the tobacco lobby seemed to be getting its way after all. I personally find it odd that Germans, who in other areas are very health conscious, stick their heads in the sand when it comes to cigarettes.
But before we Americans take a scornful view of all this, it is only fair to to point out that only about half of the states in the USA have statewide smoking bans, and most are weaker than those in Europe. (Oklahoma and Michigan specifically ban local anti-smoking legislation!) My home state of Nevada was very slow to pass any smoking ban, and when it finally did so this year, it made the predictable exception for casinos. Fewer than 40 percent of Americans live in a state that bans smoking in all workplaces, restaurants, and bars.
The main difference lies in public attitudes. Even in states without legal smoking bans, many businesses and restaurants in the US choose to ban smoking. On the other hand, in Germany, despite solid research to the contrary, few people see tobacco smoke as a real danger. In the US, on the other hand, most Americans display anti-smoking attitudes that Germans view as a bit, well… fascist.