Lit Up About Lighting Up

Czechs Want a Smoking Ban but Their Leaders Do Not

By Alex Cass

Breaking news: According to Czech President Milos Zeman, smoking as an adult poses no health risks.

“I myself only started smoking when I was 27 years old, when my body had fully developed and tobacco could no longer harm it. So let me recommend your children to do the same; wait until the age of 27 and then smoke without any risk whatsoever,” said the president, speaking at a Philip Morris cigarette factory in Kutna Hora––about 45 miles outside of Prague––in early October.

Smoking Ban

Smoking rates are on the rise in the Czech Republic.
Photo courtesy of thingmykidswontknow.tumblr.com

And while the factory workers and tobacco companies may have applauded Zeman’s comments, medical experts and anti-tobacco advocates were appalled.

“This is definitely not a recommendation a sane person should give. It is as if the president said that putting one’s nose in a car exhaust after the age of 27 is harmless,” said Eva Kralikova, a specialist in smoking addiction treatment, in an interview with the Prague Post in October.

The president’s support for the tobacco industry illustrates the divide between Czech leaders their citizens, most of whom lack Zeman’s affection for cigarettes. There is currently a law that restricts smoking in certain public places, such as state institutions, hospitals, and public service areas like tram stops, but not in restaurants or drinking establishments. However, according to a survey conducted in January of this year by Charles University and IPSOS media research agency, 78 percent of adult Czechs would support stricter anti-smoking policies in the country, including a ban on smoking in restaurants.

And yet the Czech Republic continues to be one of the last remaining holdouts in the European Union when it comes to tough anti-tobacco legislation. Since Ireland became the first European country to impose a blanket ban on smoking in public places in 2004, many European countries such as France and Italy have passed laws restricting smoking in not just government and public service institutions but also bars and restaurants, including several nations of the former Eastern Bloc such as Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Albania (and the same ban is set to take effect in Russia in July of 2014).

There have been several failed efforts to pass a stricter anti-smoking law in parliament over the past few years. Despite the wealth of public information on the hazards of smoking and efforts from anti-smoking organizations like Czech Anti-Tobacco Coalition, the percentage of smokers in the Czech Republic has increased by roughly 5 percent over the last decade, according reports by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is one of the only members in the 28-country European Union with increasing smoking rates and is now ranked 12 in worldwide tobacco consumption per capita.

Shortly after the president’s October statement, Lukas Kohoutek from the Czech Anti-Tobacco Coalition told the Czech News Agency (CTK) that roughly 18,000 Czech people die every year due to smoking related issues. Zeman, an avid smoker and drinker, was diagnosed with diabetes in August and advised by his doctors to cut down on these habits.

In October, CTK also reported that 40 percent of Czechs aged 15-18 smoke, and according to recent data from the National Institute for Public Health, for the first time in history, the average age at which Czech children have their first cigarette has decreased to age twelve––fifteen years sooner than the risk-free age, according to Zeman.

After 8 years of delays, in May of 2012 the Czech Republic was the last EU member country to ratify the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first public health treaty that requires countries to gradually enact tightened public smoking laws.

Alex2

Although there is no legal ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants, many are prohibiting smoking on their own accord.
Photo courtesy of http://www.electroniccigarettes.co.uk

Since then, however, the Czech Republic has only instated the weak and unenforced smoking regulation requiring restaurants and bars to post a sign stating whether smoking is allowed, not allowed, or allowed in separate rooms away from non-smokers.

The Czech refusal to move forward with a more comprehensive smoking ban has put the country at odds with the European Union for quite some time.

For the first half of 2013, the Irish Minister of Health James Reilly and his colleagues focused much of their efforts during their six-month presidency in the EU parliament on anti-tobacco legislation. According to August reports by Press Europe, the European Health Ministers, under Reilly’s lead, decided to push for stricter smoking regulations across Europe.

In June, the EU parliament met to discuss Reilly’s tobacco proposal which would call for all EU member countries to gradually tighten their tobacco legislation. The Czech Republic was the only country to proclaim a “no-concession” policy demanding that the directive be struck down completely.

There are a few theories regarding Czech politicians’ unwillingness to support a restaurant/bar smoking ban.

The Philip Morris Tobacco Company, which controls roughly 40 percent of the cigarette market, reports profits of 2.5 billion crowns annually. The remainder split among other global brands like British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco. All together, this revenue equates to almost 50 billion crowns, or 2.5 billion U.S. dollars, in recoverable taxes every year, according to records from the Ministry of Finance.

Concerns over the loss of tax revenue from tobacco sales coupled with fierce opposition to restrictions on personal freedoms are utilized by tobacco companies to manipulate public opinion and political action regarding smoking and have caused political figures like Zeman to resist stricter laws.

In August of this year, Reuters revealed internal Philip Morris documents leaked to the media which showed that tobacco lobbyists had held over 250 meetings with members of parliament, especially conservatives, to discuss their opposition to anti-tobacco legislation.

“Wait until the age of 27 and then smoke without any risk whatsoever.”

In March of this year, shortly after Reilly’s stringent smoking legislation proposal, the ODS––a conservative political party that ran the previous Czech government-–told CTK that it was recommending its representatives in the government and parliament to vote against a restaurant/bar smoking ban because it was a “curtailment of private entities’ ownership rights.”

Former Czech President Klaus, the founder of ODS and a non-smoker, refused to support a nationwide smoking ban throughout his presidency.

“He was supportive of the tobacco industry for its contribution to the Czech economy and he was very skeptical of any attempt to dictate to people what they can and can’t do,” says Rob Cameron, a professor and the BBC’s Czech and Slovak correspondent.

“For him, it’s a clear thing. If you want to educate people about the risks of smoking, absolutely. But if you want to smoke, it’s your right. Here the whole debate is kind of tied up with freedom and the state encroaching,” he adds.

Cameron points out that another obstacle in enacting anti-smoking policy is that, even though tobacco is imported to and not grown in the country, “it is in the hands of the health ministry because it is an agricultural product.”

“The fact that the health minister who does generally try and change things and introduce new legislation can’t affect changes on how tobacco is controlled, that speaks volumes to the fact that the Czech government isn’t that serious about cracking down on people smoking.”

Independent studies conducted over the last few years have consistently shown that smoking restrictions have produced either positive or neutral effects on profits for restaurants and bars, according to the EU’s Smoke Free Partnership group. Furthermore, Lukas Kohoutek from the Czech anti-tobacco coalition told CTK in late October that the costs of treatment of smoking-related diseases are about the same as what is collected in excise taxes on cigarettes.

Over the past several years, some critics have alleged that the tobacco companies have provided secret funds to political parties. However, no direct evidence of this has been discovered thus far.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of bars and restaurant owners restrict smoking in their establishments.

“Non-smokers don’t want to sit where people are smoking. Most of my staff members are in fact smokers, and even they tell me they love working in a smoke-free environment,” Libor Kult, the manager of Kulovy blesk, a pub in Prague’s New Town, told the Prague Post last summer after the bar converted to a non-smoking establishment.

In January, the president of the Hotels and Restaurants Association of the Czech Republic told the Prague Post that “about 60 percent of restaurants are non-smoking, or they have a completely separate area for smokers. What we are saying is that is makes no sense to make it become a law. This is something that opposes, in our eyes, the freedom of open business.”

“Many see the current situation as a reasonable compromise because there are many bars and restaurants that are non-smoking,” says Cameron.

But Adam Hanzlik, a student at Charles University, complains about sometimes being forced to choose between a restaurant or bar that he might really like and wanting to be somewhere that isn’t so smoky.

When asked about the odds of a smoking ban passing in the country, he admits, “I don’t know that it will pass but I would like it to. Many countries in Europe have a ban, so maybe the Czech Republic will be next.”

Alex Cass is in the NYU College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2015. Her hometown is Dallas, Texas. 

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Categories: Fall 2013 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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