Greece said on Tuesday it will enforce a largely ignored smoking ban with hundreds more inspectors, the third time in recent years it has tried and failed to stop the EU’s heaviest smokers flouting the ban.

“The Greek state cannot continue to be made a laughing stock,” Health Minister Andreas Loverdos told reporters. “We are starting tomorrow — the ban will be fully implemented.”

Most cafes and restaurants had shrugged off the latest, Sept. 1 ban and taxi drivers smoke with impunity while driving.

“This is it. They have smoked all they are going to smoke in bars, restaurants and cafes in the past months,” he stressed.

When questioned on the failure of authorities to successfully enforce the smoking ban until now and how this would change, the minister only noted that “enforcement of the law was not self-evident”.

Deputy Health Minister Michalis Dimosidis noted that the inspection mechanisms seemed “reluctant” to impose fines over this issue.

He noted that there had been 343,000 complaints that the smoking ban had been violated in two months and fines had only been imposed in 3,000 cases.

Loverdos said the government would launch a fresh campaign against smoking and hire hundreds of additional inspectors to slap fines on business owners and smokers.

Inspectors can impose up to 10,000 euros ($13,350) in fines on bar and restaurant owners tolerating smoking and up to 500 euros for smokers who break the law. But only a handful of penalties have been imposed despite widespread violations.

Most restaurants have kept ash-trays on their tables despite the ban or put them back after losing costumers to more smoker-friendly places.

Some organised street protests against the ban, saying applying it would drive customers away at a time when business was already hit by recession.

“This decision comes at a time when the economy is in deep recession, it will lead to shutting down thousands of businesses and at least 80,000 jobs will be lost,” said Yiorgos Kavathas, general secretary of the Greek restaurant owners federation.

Smoking-related health costs are two billion euros a year, health ministry data says, about 60 percent of total tobacco tax revenues in 2009.

Greece has increased excise tax and VAT on tobacoo to 23 from 19 percent as part of EU and IMF austerity steps.

Sources: Athens News Agency, Reuters