New Tax Can't Keep Greeks From Smoking

More than 40 percent of Greeks over 15 smoke, among the highest percentages in the world. Three years ago, the government banned smoking indoors in bars, restaurants and cafes — but the ban has never been enforced.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To Greece now, a country with one of the highest percentages of smokers in the world. At least 40 percent of the population over the age of 15 smokes, leading, of course, to rising rates of lung disease and lung cancer. Several years ago, the Greek parliament banned smoking inside restaurants, bars and public buildings. But it's rarely enforced. And even a new tax on cigarettes doesn't seem to be deterring Greek smokers. Joanna Kakissis has the story from Athens.

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JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Antigoni Papaconstantinou started smoking two years ago when she 19.

ANTIGONI PAPACONSTANTINOU: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: I was working at a bar, she said, and everyone smoked.

PAPACONSTANTINOU: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Antigoni explains that you practically can't go out in Greece unless you smoke. Going out for a drink also means going out for a cigarette.

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KAKISSIS: I met Antigoni at Booze Cooperative, a cafe-bar and art space in central Athens. Young hipsters play chess as they puff on cigarettes.

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KAKISSIS: The grey-haired owner, Nikos Louvros, smokes five packs a day. (Foreign language spoken)

NIKOS LOUVROS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: I ask Louvros if he's worried about his health. I'm almost 59-years-old, and I've never had to go the hospital, he says. I take an aspirin a day, and I'm just fine. The smoking he allows at his bar is a violation of the country's ban, but he's never had to pay a fine. He circumvented it by starting a pro-smoking political party.

LOUVROS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: This bar is party headquarters, he says, so the constitution protects us.

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KAKISSIS: A few blocks away, there is a place that welcomes the smoking ban. It's Avocado, a vegetarian bistro that offers meditation classes. One of the owners is a glowing yogi named Vivi Letsou.

VIVI LETSOU: Word is out that this is a strictly non-smoking place. They can smoke outside in our tables on the sidewalk. They wish that we had more tables and chairs outside to accommodate the smokers.

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KAKISSIS: Outside, Anastasios Papapavlous, a businessman in his 50s, is lighting a cigar after dinner.

ANASTASIOS PAPAPAVLOUS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: The ancient Greeks used to say that moderation is best, he says. I smoke cigars occasionally but I don't want the smoke to bother anyone.

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KAKISSIS: Back at the Booze Cooperative, Antigoni Papaconstantinou and two young friends talk about quitting - or at least smoking less.

PAPACONSTANTINOU: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Anastasia Malikovska, who works on yachts, says her father was a heavy smoker for years and only quit when he thought he had cancer. And yet, she says, she's still smoking. Despite the health warnings, the ban, even the tax, Greeks are still struggling with a habit that many here say is part of the culture. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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