Smokers on the Spree

Expats may be surprised at the huge number of bars and clubs that allow smoking in Berlin, even more to learn that the city, just like the rest of Germany, actually has a smoking ban.

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Schokoladen is one of countless Berlin bars that allow smoking indoors.

Expats may be surprised at the huge number of bars and clubs that allow smoking in Berlin, even more to learn that the city, just like the rest of Germany, actually has a smoking ban. Here, rolling a cigarette is seen as a way of life, and lighting up indoors an inalienable right. Is there any hope for Berliners who want to breathe easy?

Berliners are inveterate smokers. In the German capital, one-third of the adult population smokes (30 percent in 2013). It’s more than the national average (24.5 percent), a lot more than in London (11 percent, 2014) or even Paris (23.6 percent) and almost as much as Greece, which has the highest percentage of smokers in the EU (38 percent, 2013)! Like everywhere, Berlin men are on top (35 percent, versus 24 percent among women) but unlike many countries like France or the UK where smoking decreases with age, in Germany the opposite is seen, with more and heavier smokers to be found among older age brackets. In short, Berlin smokers are set in their ways. What’s being done about it?

The Berlin exception

As it turns out, not a whole lot. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Germany’s Federal Non-Smokers Protection Act, which raised the smoking age from 16 to18 and banned smoking in most indoor spaces, requiring bars to have separate smoking and non-smoking rooms. But the law as it was written only lasted a year in Berlin. Enforcement began at the start of 2008; by that December, the German Association of Hotels and Restaurants, claiming 20 to 40 percent drops in profit due to the ban, had put forth individual complaints from bar owners in the federal states of Berlin and Baden-Württemberg to Germany’s highest court, the Constitutional Court. Owners of smaller bars claimed that if they couldn’t offer a separate smoking space it would bankrupt them due to the loss of clientele. In 2009, the “free rights of bar owners to exercise their occupation” trumped the protection of nonsmokers and the courts gave the two states until the end of the year to draft their own rules.

Berlin now allows far more exceptions and leniencies than other German states, banning smoking entirely in daycare centres, schools, recreational facilities and public transportation but only partially in government agencies, police stations, hospitals, cultural institutions, clubs and restaurants. As for bars, they’re legally able to allow smoking as long as the space is no larger than 75sqm, there’s no possibility of creating a separate smoking room, and the venue doesn’t sell hot food or allow minors. In practice, dozens of Berlin bars and nightclubs that don’t meet those requirements by any stretch still allow smoking indoors.

The prohibition of smoking doesn’t aim to inconvenience smokers or bar owners. Its goal is to decrease the amount of tobacco consumption and protect the health of citizens. And it seems to be working – at least in the rest of Germany where the number of daily smokers decreased five percent between 2005-2013, and the number of people who have never smoked has risen from almost 43 percent to nearly 65 percent. Baden-Würrtemberg, where the ban is even more relaxed, has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country at 22.8 percent. Berlin, however, still has the highest rate in the country, with less than a three percent drop since the ban was implemented.

Says Berlin health department, ‘There’s no issue with the ban. The point of laws is to balance the public’s interests, and there’s a good balance now. Everyone is happy with things the way they are.’

Despite the high number of smokers, and several community groups demanding stricter enforcement and more widespread bans, Christoph Lang, a press officer from the city’s health department, thinks the state of smoking in Berlin is as good as it’s going to get. “There’s no issue with the Berlin smoking ban. The point of laws is to balance the interests of the public, and there’s a good balance now. Everyone is happy with things the way they are.”

As for Dirk Medrow, who heads Berlin’s administration for education, youth and family, he encourages those bothered by secondhand smoke to look on the bright side. “Because of the laws, smoking has gone down so much. For 10 years [prior to the ban], smoking was such a huge issue, you couldn’t go out anywhere without smelling like smoke. Now you can actually go out to dinner and eat comfortably.” Dinner, sure – but has Medrow been to any Berlin bars lately?

Bans fall short

Although Lang doesn’t think there’s a problem, the Senat’s own website states that nicotine is the number-one addiction in Berlin, and the city has been criticised for looking the other way when Berliners light up where they’re not supposed to, whether on U-Bahn platforms, in bars or at restaurants. In the case that someone does get caught in the act, there are fines for certain spaces: €15 for smoking on public transportation, €100 in a restaurant, €1000 for allowing smoking in your business. But these are rarely enforced. “The way it is in Berlin, the legislation doesn’t work to prevent secondhand smoke health risks because there are so many compliance issues,” observed Dr. Ute Mons, head of cancer prevention at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.

It has been the mission of Forum Rauchfrei, a team of volunteers and health professionals fighting the good fight for nonsmoker protection since 2000, to hold the state of Berlin accountable. They even joined forces in 2009 with fellow non- profit associations Nichtraucherbund Berlin and Pro Rauchfrei for the “Fresh Air in Berlin” alliance to (unsuccessfully) oppose the reversal of the mandatory indoor smoking ban. Chairmen Johannes Spatz and Dieter Eichinger have had an uphill battle attempting to get their voice heard, especially with the government’s apparent satisfaction with the status quo. But this may soon change, with Berlin’s newly elected “red-red-green” coalition (and especially the staunchly anti-smoking Greens) pledging to make health a priority. It seems like the Senat has already taken the first step: the health department invited Spatz and Eichinger to a meeting in February specifically dedicated to addressing nonsmoking legislation, the health risks of passive smoking and the steps needed to protect children and nonsmokers in Berlin.

Eichinger’s goals are ambitious, advocating for the kind of legislation more commonly seen in the US and UK. “We want smoking in spaces such as playgrounds or directly outside hospitals banned, a total removal of outdoor cigarette ads and vending machines, as well as preventing parents from smoking in cars with kids, which was recently banned in Scotland. We hope the new administration’s ears will be open.”

The future is non-smoking

Battles over bans notwithstanding, Forum Rauchfrei’s real hope might lie in the next generation. Adults may not be ready to give up their smoking habit, but it seems children aren’t following in the same footsteps. The percentage of 15- to 17-year-old smokers in Berlin was at an all-time low of under 12 percent in 2012, a 20 percent decrease from the start of the century. And it seems to be a trend: smoking’s not as cool as it used to be among younger generations.

There’s been many efforts to make smoking unattractive to kids: anti-tobacco programmes in classrooms, plastering decaying organs and other scary photos on cigarette packs. But Medrow believes the reason for the decline is simpler: now that smoking has been banned on school grounds it’s out of sight, out of mind. “Now that school campuses are non-smoking districts, the interest in cigarettes isn’t as high. Instead of saying ‘Smoking is bad but you can make your own decision on whether to do it,’ the law says,‘No! It’s illegal!’”

Meanwhile, though many Berliners will still defend to the death their right to light up with a drink in hand, an increasing number of bargoers and owners are avoiding cigarette smoke on their own initiative. The open-source site provides user-submitted listings of the city’s smoke-free bars, and it seems like the list is growing – especially as craft beer, artisanal cocktails and gastropub fare, better enjoyed without smoke-numbed tastebuds, become more popular. German native Tim Lanwerd is an occasional smoker, but when he opened Dresden, his bar on the street of the same name in Kreuzberg, he was passionate about it being smoke-free despite qualifying for the smoking ban exception. “I got tired of going out to places full of smoke, so it was important to me to open a place that didn’t allow smoking. Some people do come in, find out they can’t smoke here and tell me they’re not going to stay, but they can always go somewhere else.”

There does seem to be hope for nonsmokers’ future. Considering Germany’s steep drop in smokers over the 10 years since the ban went into effect, the next decade may well result in a less smoky Berlin… and we can all begin to stress about the next health issue. “The smoking ban has worked so well, we need to make laws about sugar!” exclaims Medrow. “There’s so much sugar in our foods now, that’s the next thing we need to tackle.”