Germany is now among the nations where it's getting harder to smoke in a restaurant. Harder, but not impossible. Various German states have introduced smoking bans, which led reporter Kyle James to one of the restaurants that has found a way around the law.


KYLE JAMES: To get into Barbara Palms' 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 on January 1st.

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.

JAMES: (Foreign language spoken)

JAMES: 95 percent of my guests are smokers and I live off them, she says. With this law the government is taking away our livelihoods. If I just have 5 percent of my guests left, the non-smokers, I can't even pay my rent.

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 lots 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 Tubingen 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's filed a suit with the nation's highest court, hoping to get the law changed.

JAMES: (Foreign language spoken)

JAMES: I hope that they make an exception to the rule, he says, so that small bars - the classic corner bars that live off drink sales - can decide on their own to be smoking or non-smoking.

JAMES: Back in Berlin, bars actually 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 technically illegal to light up in bars, it'll be summer before the city starts imposing fines for it.

Simon Stettner, who's puffing away, says places with ashtrays still out are doing a booming business.

JAMES: And there's one bar where we're actually 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.

JAMES: 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 be facing 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. But there were similar fears when smoking bans were introduced in other countries. Their experience gives him reason for hope.

JAMES: 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.

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

For NPR News, I'm Kyle James in Berlin.


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