Dragging on - the struggle to ban smoking in Switzerland

April 10th, 2008 - 10:57 am ICT by admin  

By Heather Lima
Berne (Switzerland), April 10 (DPA) The land of health spas, muesli and mountain air, Switzerland remains one of the last havens for smokers in Europe and there is a powerful restaurant and hotel lobby set on keeping it that way. However, while the smoker still holds sway in many restaurants and bars across most of the country the non-smoker is breaking out of his corner.

So far laws have been brought in piecemeal regionally. Six out of 26 cantons have introduced laws to curb passive smoking with others planning to follow.

Two have gone for a total ban, Ticino being the first in April 2007, inspired by its neighbour Italy, followed by Geneva where measures come into force July 1.

Smoking is estimated to kill around 1,000 people in Switzerland a year, a fifth of them non-smokers.

Now the federal government is working on countrywide legislation, which would bring it into line with much of Europe. Some 18 European countries have now brought in laws after Ireland set the ball rolling in 2004.

According to government figures for 2007, around a third of Swiss smoke. They cost the economy an estimated 5 billion francs ($4.94 billion) a year in medical bills, absenteeism, invalidity and premature deaths. An extra half a billion is added to that for secondary smokers.

The Federal Public Health Department says most secondary smoking takes place in restaurants and bars. Three out of four non-smokers want a total ban and 40 percent of smokers.

The hotel and restaurant federation, GastroSuisse has challenged that. It represents 20,000 establishments throughout Switzerland and says its own recent survey of 500 people showed 77 percent of people support a smoking area in restaurants.

Director Florian Hew said health fanatics were only too eager to promote the idea that the Swiss were massively against smoking in restaurants and cafes.

He said: “We defend the freedom for our members to make up their own minds on their policy about smoking.”

Others are opposed to an outright ban. Toni Bortoluzzi, a member of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, says its wrong to ban a legal product.

“The state interferes in private affairs when it defines the rules of tobacco consumption in a privately-owned restaurant or a bar,” he said in an interview.

One bar owner in Berne, a confirmed smoker himself, but who has banned smoking ahead of any government action, said smoking in public places would soon be viewed like smoking on aircraft.

“In a few years we will think it was absurd that we ever allowed smoking in an enclosed space.”

GastroSuisse has lobbied hard for a law allowing all-smoking establishments alongside non-smoking venues so customers can make their own choice. It is something parliament has resisted so far.

But the government appears to be looking for compromises. The employees, it is seeking to protect in the workplace, may yet still be exposed to secondary smoking. The government is currently leaning away from separate non-serviced smoking areas to fully staffed zones in restaurants or bars.

The Federal Public Health Department fears weaker national legislation could be on the cards, which might even cut across stricter cantonal laws.

Such a move would bring Switzerland into conflict with the World Health Organization’s anti-smoking convention, ruling out smoking areas completely, which the Swiss have signed but not ratified.

While the restaurant lobby strives to influence federal law, smoking bans are nonetheless gathering momentum. The cantons, spurred on by popular opinion, appear to be pushing the pace and riding roughshod over any opposition.

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