Austrian MPs have voted to overturn a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants that was scheduled to come into force this May.
All EU countries have adopted some measure of legislation to protect against second hand smoke, but rules are enforced to varying degrees. In Austria, smokers in bars and restaurants must be seated in separated areas, but campaigners say that rules are openly flouted, and that the policy does little to protect non-smoking clientele.
The number of smokers in Europe is generally in decline, but according to Eurostat, Austria is one of only two EU member states in which the number of smokers did not decrease from 2000 to 2015. The country has the third highest proportion of smokers in the EU, with 30% of people over 15 smoking daily.
Austria is considered one of the last havens in Europe for tobacco lovers, but anti-smoking campaigners have termed it the “ashtray of Europe”.
Overturning the smoking ban legislation, which was introduced by the previous government, was a key pledge made in last year’s election campaign by leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), Heinz Christian-Strache. After a good performance in last year’s October elections, the FPO formed a coalition with the Austrian conservative party, making Austria the only European country with a far-right party in power.
Smoking is seen by many as part of Vienna’s “cafe culture”, but the decision of Strache, himself an avid smoker, also caused widespread shock and dismay. Even the health minister, who is from Strache’s party, expressed his concern.
Commenting on the overturning of the ban, the head of the opposition Neos party told MPs, “You are acting against science and without a conscience. You are making a deliberate decision today in favour of death.”
Although Strache’s pro-smoking stance has caused consternation amongst anti-smoking campaigners and health professionals, the decision fits with his party’s anti-establishment and libertarian credentials.