Greece has tried to ban smoking, in one way or another, four times over the past decade.
Today is day eleven of take four. As of 1st September, a blanket ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces has come into effect.
Anyone caught sparking up inside could now be fined between 50 and 500 euros. Business operators face fines of up to 10,000 euros for allowing people to smoke indoors, with repeat offenders facing forced closures of up to 10 days.
Despite whispers of revenue raising, the government claims it’s acting in Greece’s best interests.
“This is a matter of public health, not a witch-hunt,” Health minister Mariliza Xenoyannakopoulou said last week. But the public reaction has been far from one of gratitude for the government’s thoughtful consideration of their health.
Anyone that has been to Greece will know that there’s three things that Greeks like to do most: nothing, drink coffee and smoke.
Mostly, these three things are done at the same time, despite their collective deleteriousness.
So not surprisingly, between the Greek’s perceived God-given right to do whatever he wants whenever he wants, and his general ambivalence towards the law, on day eleven of take four, the smoke continues to billow.
And in a country where 42% of the adult population are smokers, leading to 22,000 deaths annually, I doubt this is likely to change.
Discussing the ban with a pair of middle-aged men, in a small town in northern Greece, the local response becomes clear.
“I will not be told what to do by anyone, especially not a stupid politician,” my friend says, as he stubs out one cigarette and lights another.
“It might work in Athens but not here. Here the only people that will suffer will be the shop owners.” “If I can’t sit at a kafeneio and smoke, I just won’t go to the kafeneio,” he says.
So what does the kafeneio owner do?
Indeed there is a general level of skepticism surrounding the timing of the ban, given the gaping hole in the Greek government’s coffers and the potential windfall that fine revenue could contribute.
“We agree with the measures in principle, but the timing is off,” George Kavathas, a member of Greece’s association of restaurant owners, told AOL News.
“When the economy is in a recession and our industry faces between 20 to 25 percent drops in proﬁt, such measures will shut down several operations and increase unemployment,” he said. Another proprietor, Nikos Louvros has even gone so far as to start Greece’s first pro-smoking political party, labelling smoking bans akin to fascism.
Louvros’ amusingly acronymed KOTES (a pun on the Greek word for chickens) party even managed to win a handful of votes in last year’s national elections.
Luckily for Kavathas and Louvros however, their concerns stem from the assumption that the bans will actually be enforced, a concept that seems to elude Greek authorities, perhaps because doing the paperwork would require the municipal police to put down their cigarettes for a moment.
In order to encourage the enforcement of the new laws, the government has pledged to contribute a cut of fine revenue back to local councils. But is a little extra money in the council coffers likely to encourage Costa the Copper to shut down Theia Maria’s kafeneio because Theio Maki is smoking inside again? And imagine the reaction when a municipal officer hands my friend his first fine.
“Greece is already on a knife’s edge,” he says quite seriously. “It’ll only take a spark for us to descend into anarchy. I’ve had enough of listening to politicians, they’re all idiots anyway.”
But the statistics paint a grave picture. Greece’s 42 percent smoking rate is the highest in the EU, a staggering 13 percent above average.
Greece reports 700 deaths a year from passive smoking, which coupled with other smoking-related health issues puts a 2.5 billion euro strain on the Greek health system.
It’s time to put pig-headed civil disobedience aside and give the smokes away. That said, perhaps bans is not the way to go about it. There are other options: long-term ad campaigns, public education, because despite their good intentions, the government is attempting to undergo a process that is contrary to a significant percentage of public opinion, at a time when the public is staunchly critical of government actions and decisions.
In practice, a move like this cannot succeed without public support. The Greek public has to want to ban smoking.
Or at the very least Joe Public has to trust that the government knows best, and is acting in the country’s best interests, which right now he does not.
Despite the fact that banning smoking in enclosed public spaces is clearly the right thing to do – in terms of public health, in terms of tourism, in terms of progress – the public is so guarded when it comes to taking big political steps, now more than ever, that perhaps now is not the right time.
Perhaps they’ll have better luck with take five