Health minister calls a crusade against smokers

If you like a cigarette with your beer or while waiting for the bus, you might soon have to give that pleasure up. Czech Health Minister Bohumil Fiser intends to declare war on tobacco. Beatrice Cady reports:

The golden age of smokers in the Czech Republic has come to an end. The minister of health has just proposed a new law for the protection against the dangers of tobacco, alcohol and other addictive substances. If this law is passed, smoking will be limited in public places, like bus stops and pubs. Anyone who wants to sell cigarettes will need a licence, and only newspaper stands and regular shops will be entitled to get it. Basically, this means there will no longer be any tax-free cigarette selling out in the open air. And for tourists, Prague will no longer be the haven of cheap cigarettes it once was.

Selling cigarettes to people under 18 will be punishable and the production and the sale of anything that resembles a cigarette or any other tobacco-related product, for example chocolate cigarettes, cigarette-shaped chewing gum or toys will be strictly prohibited. Indeed, cigarette-shaped chewing gum is considered to influence children to take up smoking. Even giving a cigarette to a minor could cost you a fine of up to 5000 Kc or nearly 150 USD. This should make parents aware that encouraging their children to take their first drag might not be such a good idea.

Smoking will also be entirely prohibited in restaurants between 12 and 2 p.m. and between 6 and 8 p.m.. Until now, a vague regulation has been in force that forbids smoking in pubs "at meal times". The problem is that there isn't really any such thing as "meal times", because in Czech pubs and restaurants you can usually eat at any time of the day between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. Besides, as most restaurants don't have a non-smoking section, it is difficult to restrict smoking in restaurants throughout the whole day.

As the main purpose of the new law is to protect young people from damaging their long-term health, specific measures will be taken to discourage youngsters from taking up smoking: it will no longer be possible to buy just one cigarette, which is a cheap way for youngsters to get acquainted with smoking. The financial burden of having to buy a whole pack will certainly act as a strong deterrent. And, in a long run, the few cigarette vending machines which are scattered around Czech towns should also disappear. Minister Fiser also declared that politicians should not be setting a bad example by smoking in public. He even advised Prime Minister Milos Zeman to quit smoking, a suggestion the Czech Prime Minister found very amusing.

If the law is eventually passed, it seems likely it could provoke quite a bit of an uproar in a country which has always been cigarette-friendly. But just like other countries, people will need much more than high prices, strict laws and health warnings to break a beloved bad habit. Fighting against smoking is important, about that everybody agrees. But is fighting smokers to protect their health, whether they like it or not, really the best proposition?

A Czech journalist wrote in Lidove Noviny: "I don't want to give them [non-smokers] problems I give myself out of my own free will. [But] If I start smoking, I have the right not to feel like a criminal. This is why maybe the time has come to say: Don't take away my bad habit and joy, my bad smell, my cough, my yellowed fingers, and my cancer. Don't take away my freedom."

Author: Beatrice Cady
run audio