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Europe's Tobacco Tolerance Going Up in Smoke

Efforts to restrict use collide with populace's self-image as moderate and sophisticated. Some say limits are a crass import from America.

August 17, 2003|Brian Murphy | Associated Press Writer

ATHENS — There's the law. And then there's Costas' taxi.

Costas Salatas smokes cigarette after cigarette of the cheapest Greek brands -- in open defiance of rules banning cabbies from lighting up. When the ashtray fills after a few hours, he simply flicks the butts out the window.

"What's next?" he growled as he waved his cigarette like a conductor's baton. "No smoking at cafes? No smoking at the beach? Is this the future in Europe?"

Could be.

From Irish pubs to Turkish teahouses, a barrage of measures have smokers and tobacco companies in the cross hairs. Norway and Ireland appear headed toward American-style smoking bans in restaurants and other public places. Greece and Spain have imposed some controls but still tread cautiously with their puffing populace.

The trends, though, are as unmistakable as the Marlboro Man: Europe is shedding its smoker-friendly ambience. Coming years foresee cigarette-free zones expanding, warning labels growing bigger, and tobacco advertising and sponsorship disappearing.

No one promises that it will be easy on a continent where even a cheeseburger can inspire debates on cultural imperialism. The efforts to contain smokers collide with the Europeans' self-image as tolerant, moderate and, above all, sophisticated.

To some critics, uncompromising anti-smoking laws seem too much of a crass import from across the Atlantic -- something the cigarette lobby can capitalize on.

"Europe should be different. It shouldn't blindly copy America's anti-smoking fervor," said Simon Clark, director of the London-based lobby group Freedom Organization for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco.

But the European Union, which will expand from 15 to 25 nations next year, is taking its "feel free to say no" campaign to heart.

The European Commission will ban smoking at its headquarters in Brussels and Luxembourg in May, and offer courses for employees wishing to quit.

In January, warning labels on EU cigarette packs must grow to 30% of the front and 40% of the back -- a relative billboard compared with the more discreet U.S. warnings.

They used to cover a small patch of the pack similar to the U.S. warnings. The EU may even allow pictures of smoking ailments such as diseased lungs.

In 2005, the EU will outlaw tobacco ads in publications on the Internet and at international sporting events, including the Formula One races that are awash in cigarette sponsorship.

F-1 officials are threatening to pull races from Europe to Asia and other regions, and they've already dropped their race in Belgium, although the Belgian parliament recently eased its tobacco-ad ban in a bid to get it back.

"The tide is turning," said the EU's health commissioner, David Byrne, who has spearheaded measures to limit smoking and the influence of tobacco companies.

But it's not the first time. For centuries, Europe has seesawed from being a smokers' paradise and purgatory.

In the 17th century, Pope Urban VIII issued a papal bull against smoking. Russia's Czar Alexis was known to send unrepentant smokers to Siberia.

King James I of England, in his famous anti-tobacco treatise published in 1604, called smoking "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless."

Then came the French Revolution in 1789, and cigarettes rolled in plant husks became a symbol of popular dissent against the tobacco snuff favored by bluebloods.

Britain's cigar-loving King Edward VII added respectability to smoking after he took the throne in 1901.

Modern tax systems preyed heavily on smokers. Governments were happy: More smokers meant more revenue.

And in current generations, European smokers could also hone their identities by the brand they smoked: Gauloises for the Francophile, Marlboros or Camels for an American look.

The latest limits have some smokers breathing fire.

"For me, a cigarette is a friend, a companion, a lover, a sister, a mother," said Enzo Carlone, 48, a street artist in Rome. A new Italian law, which takes effect in April, mandates no-smoking areas in restaurants.

Pelin Turkoglu, 23, a smoker in Istanbul, Turkey, vowed: "If smoking inside is outlawed, then I will continue smoking outside even if it is freezing cold."

Turkey is under pressure to impose stricter anti-smoking laws to boost its bid to join the EU.

In Portugal, where no-smoking areas are still a novelty, a wave of outrage greeted a failed attempt at an American-inspired class-action suit by throat-cancer sufferers against the state and the former tobacco monopoly.

"We're not Americans!" said one caller to a radio show. "Everyone who smokes knows it's bad for them. It's a choice you make."

In Dublin, Ireland, grandmother Olive O'Shea puffed away in sight of a "no smoking" sign in a Burger King restaurant.

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