Germany Deals with New Smoking Regulations

Until recently, Germany was one of Western Europe's last bastions for smokers. While bans went into place in the U.K., Spain, Italy and Ireland, Germans continued to light up in restaurants and bars.

But now, that's changed. Germany's federal states have been introducing wide-ranging smoking bans, and they're not sitting well with many.

Some don't like the government trying to change their behavior. Others say traditional bars could become a thing of the past.

Finding Other Approaches

Some, like Barbara Palm, are just changing the way they do things.

To get into Palm's small neighborhood bar in Berlin these days, you have to ring the doorbell.

Locking the front door is the way she's getting around Berlin's ban on smoking in public spaces, which now includes bars and restaurants. It went into effect Jan. 1. She calls her establishment a private Smokers' Club now, and hands people a membership ticket when they come in.

Inside, almost everyone has a cigarette in hand, and the air is thick with smoke.

"Ninety-five percent of my guests are smokers, and I live off them," Palm says. "With this law, the government is taking away our livelihoods. If I just have 5 percent of my guests left — the nonsmokers — I can't even pay my rent."

Meeting Resistance

Germany's smoking bans have hit some fierce resistance. Maybe that's surprising in a country not exactly averse to rules and regulations.

Leading the fight are the owners of small, traditional bars where regulars gather for cheap beer and gossip, accompanied by a lot of nicotine. Many owners say they don't have the financial means, or the space, to create a separate room for smokers.

Uli Neu has owned his bar in Tübingen, in southwest Germany, for 22 years. His state, Baden-Württemberg, introduced the smoking ban last August, and he says since then he's watched sales fall by 35 percent.

Helped by Germany's bar and restaurant association, he has filed a suit with the nation's highest court, hoping to get the law changed.

"I hope that they make an exception to the rule," Neu says, "so that small bars, the classic corner bars that live off of drink sales, can decide on their own to be smoking or nonsmoking."

Berlin Easing In

Back in Berlin, bars are deciding on their own, at least for now.

Perhaps because the city is considered home to the best nightlife in Europe, Berliners are being eased into the new, cleaner air. Although it's technically illegal to light up in bars, the city won't start imposing fines for it until summer.

Simon Stettner says — while puffing away — that places with ashtrays still out are doing a booming business.

"There's one bar where it's allowed to smoke, and normally it's a little ugly bar and was not very well visited — but right now it's full of people," Stettner says.

Implementation of State Regulations

If it sounds confusing in Berlin, it's actually pretty confusing all over Germany.

The ban wasn't passed on the federal level, so it's a patchwork of differing state regulations. Smoking in bars and restaurants is prohibited across the board. But if you want to light up in a festival tent at Cologne's carnival, no problem. Still, you better put it out at Munich's Oktoberfest, or you'll face a fine.

Bernd Hieber manages a Mexican restaurant in the southern city of Stuttgart, which has had a ban in place for half a year now. He understands that some people, especially bar owners, are angry and worried.

There were similar fears when smoking bans were introduced in other countries. But their experience gives him reason for hope.

"Countries like Ireland, or Scotland, the first one or two years, this is a time of struggling, but then in the longer run, things seem to be that the people accept it," Hieber says.

But, he adds, with business at small bars falling off so dramatically right after the ban's introduction, it's uncertain whether some will still be around if the customers start coming back.

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