Even without failed smoking ban, it's 'lights out' at some Prague cafes

This week the Chamber of Deputies struck down a bill amendment that would have banned smoking in Czech restaurants. Opponents of tobacco vow to continue their push to clear the air inside the country's eateries, however, a small number of cafes and restaurants have beat them to the punch. These establishments are completely smoke-free, which is perhaps a risky policy, since figures from the Czech Statistical Office show cigarette consumption has risen every year from 2001 to 2004, the last year available.

Just off of Resslova Street by Charles Square in Prague's New Town, Studanka is a quaint cafe where older ladies talk over cups of tea and pastries. Gentle music is in the air, and so is the warm aroma of fresh espresso. What's noticeably absent is cigarette smoke.

Studanka is part of a small but growing minority of restaurants, cafes and other eateries that are completely smoke-free - even though some estimates say every third Czech above the age of fifteen smokes. According to the anti-smoking website Dokurte.cz, only 148 such establishments exist in the entire Czech Republic. Among the thousands of eateries in Prague, Studanka is one of only 27 that prohibit smoking.

Mr. Antonin Rosypal, the owner of Studanka, says the policy does reduce the number of customers who come in.

"I know that people - some people - enter this space and when they ascertain that it's a non-smoking area, they leave it immediately. Only a few people are willing to give up the pleasure to have a cigarette with coffee."

Despite the limit of potential business, Studanka is more than seven years old and has a loyal base of regulars. Most of the people who do turn their back on the restaurant, Mr. Rosypal says, are tourists. A non-smoker himself, Mr. Rosypal says that the benefits of a smoke-free restaurant outweigh the risk of lost business.

"The non-smoking area has a lot of advantages. It's much clearer. For many of our guests it's more comfortable, because a lot of smoke is in the streets - a lot of air pollution. They are sometimes disgusted with the dust and noise. I try to keep here a quiet and clear atmosphere - that means non-smoking."

A few tram stops away at Vodickova, the atmosphere at Fuzion café is quite different. The café focuses on take-out drinks and food, so while some businessmen linger over laptops, most customers are in and out quickly. One thing it does have in common with Studanka, however, is clean air. Fuzion also forbids smoking. Co-founder Bronislav Bubilek says that the ban lets his restaurant appeal to a niche market of non-smoking customers that most cafes are ignoring

"We provide a different environment, so we are not interested in customers who would smoke here. There are loads of customers who are non-smokers, and even smokers do come."

Rather than alienating customers, Mr. Bubilek believes non-smoking restaurants are the next big thing in Europe. He cites smoking bans in Ireland and Italy as examples of a growing trend against tobacco use inside eateries. Certainly he hopes the idea catches on here, he and his partners plan to open four more Fuzion cafes in Prague within the next twelve months. All of them, he adds, will be smoke-free.

"We want people to enjoy our products, our coffee and sandwiches, fully. Which means that they can also taste and smell the coffee and sandwiches, so the smoke won't kill the taste of the coffee. Smokers don't like it much, and non-smokers love it."