Whenever anyone is flying in to visit me here in Vienna, one thing I always do is tell them to pack one more pair of clothes than they would usually bring on a similar European trip they have taken. The reason for this is that most of the people visiting me are natives of English speaking countries, and in virtually every English speaking country in the world there are laws against smoking cigarettes in restaurants, bars, museums, churches, synagogues, hospitals and any other place where people congregate en masse. Austria has no such ban, and therefore an evening spent inside a restaurant or bar will generally leave your clothes smelling like a tramps trusted dog. No one wants to wait for and board a Ryanair flight smelling like this on their way home, hence my advice for those about to visit me. I am not a smoker and people smoking around me doesn’t bother me too much, however I am reasonably young and do not have any children to protect from tobacco inhalation, so I consider myself on the borderline, floating in and out of a plausible degree of objectivity when discussing the smoking ban. The overarching thing about the lack of a smoking ban in Austria however, is that it is a shock to everyone when they first learn of it.
I was shocked when I moved here and discovered there was no smoking ban, as I thought by now it was European Union-wide legislation. The first thing I was told (by an Austrian non-smoker) was that there would never be a smoking ban in Austria, that there was too much opposition against it, that smoking in cafes and bars was part of the Austrian cultural heritage. This argument shouldn’t convince anyone who has lived in Italy, Spain, Ireland, The UK, The Netherlands etc. where the same argument was proposed by the critics of an eventually successful smoking ban. I am not educated enough in the machinations of Austrian politics to discuss why there is no smoking ban in Austria, so I do not mean to discuss it here in this post. Much as a sausage is more enjoyably consumed than the information regarding its creation, so too are the effects of laws much more interesting than the debates that lead to their ratification. In a previous post I revealed myself as a believer in Realpolitik, and that politicians only act in order to bolster their powerbase and ultimately enhance their prospects of re-election. I am reminded of this because Ireland was actually the first country in the world to introduce a nationwide smoking ban, which was timed perfectly to coincide with Irelands presidency of the European Union in early 2004.
This is not to say that there aren’t perfectly good reasons for introducing a smoking ban. The link between tobacco inhalation and cancer is by now undeniable. Anyone who has smoked a cigarette in the past twenty years knows at some level that they may be incrementally contributing to their own death. Despite what the V for Vendetta masks say, we in Europe actually do live in free societies, where people can make self-destructive decisions like this (as long as the abused product is taxed). However, smoking indoors does not just harm the smoker themselves. The fact that the toxic fumes produced by tobacco cannot be limited to just the individual who chooses to smoke means that the government is forced to act. In economic theory we would describe this cancerous ‘smoke’ as a Public Bad. This phrase sounds like it was conceived by a kindergartener, but it is simply the opposite of a Public Good, a phrase which incorporates everything we all freely enjoy such as air, water, public roads and… well, freedom. For every good, there is a bad. A government has to act to ensure the availability of public goods, and it is also responsible for protecting us from the bads(ies). What is conspicuous is that governments do not ban tobacco altogether if it is so dangerous to the health of its citizens. Smoke outside, harm yourself, the air that is not captured between bricks and mortar is not their jurisdiction.
One thing I must say about bars in Austria is that they are very atmospheric. Smokey bars to people from smoke-banned countries equates to travelling back in time, to a Golden Age of acceptance. In Ireland a few weeks ago, one of the most frustrating things encountered was that half the people in a group would migrate outside to the smoking area every half hour or so, instantly dissecting any dynamic that had been formed. In smoke-ban countries, there is segregation between the smokers and the non-smokers. Both groups are welcome in each other’s territory (laws permitting), but none are truly at home unless they are with their own kind. Most have heard of the modern phenomenon of non-smokers going out to the smoking area for a change of scenery from the main club. In the smoking area, there is a sense of comraderie, borne out of segregation; it is much easier to spark up a conversation, as you at least have one thing in common with whoever else is in there. Also in Ireland, a lot more girls smoke than guys, so that may have something to do with the smoking area having evolved into a chillout lounge. In Austria this is not the case, men and women of all ages smoke openly in front of each other.
The reason I wanted to write about the lack of a smoking ban in Austria is because there are too many times I have been in a supposedly ‘Less Developed Country’ and heard tourists just like myself mocking that country just for the fact that people can smoke inside, as if smoking inside is some barbaric thing from the middle ages. It isn’t, it still happens in the heartland of Europe. It makes your clothes a lot smellier, implying a lot more laundry bills, and also a less-than-perfect bill of health in twenty years. It leads to less social segregation, and more atmospheric bars. What I am saying here is that the lack of a smoking ban in Austria is not a good thing nor a bad thing, it is just a Thing. It is also something that cannot last forever, and smokers here should enjoy it while they can. Their time in the wilderness shall come. Also, I do think a large part of Ryanairs success in limiting their passengers to one carry-on case has been due to the lack of a need for one extra change of clothes for a European weekend trip.