The law and the passive smoker in Slovakia

About 40 percent of adult Slovaks smoke. The trend among adults has stabilized, but the number of young smokers is on the increase - mainly those experimenting with tobacco between 10 and 12 years. Most alarmingly, the number of 16-year-old girls who smoke has doubled in recent years. Katarina Richterova looks at the law and the smoker in Slovakia:

By law, restaurants in Slovakia have to be divided into areas for smokers and non smokers. Right now, I am sitting in a smoke-free zone, but there is a strong smell of cigarette smoke. How come? Well, under the law on protecting non smokers, these zones do not have to be separated by any kind of physical barrier. All the manager has to do is to put up a sign saying: smoking forbidden in this area.

"I personally think that such a treatment of the problem is not sufficient. However, that's what the law says."

...says Robert Ochaba, from the tobacco control department of the public health authority. In Slovakia, a country of 5 million inhabitants, more than 11,000 people die every year due to active smoking. A shocking figure - and people continue to smoke in large numbers despite health warnings on every pack. What seems really unfair is the impact of passive smoking.

"The risk of passive smoking lies in the fact that it is not voluntary. People, especially children, cannot protect themselves from cigarette smoke. In households where parents smoke, the danger to children is acute. This is the most serious form of passive smoking, so much the more dangerous because it is in an enclosed area."

So, going to a restaurant like this one means putting your health at risk because of other people's bad habits. According to various studies there is a close tie between passive smoking and lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and symptoms of asthma in children.

"Passive smoking can be one of several causes of serious illnesses or death. We assume that approximately 2000 people per year die due to passive smoking and similar causes."

...concludes Robert Ochaba, from the tobacco control department of the public health authority. A law protecting non smokers and granting them the right to breathe fresh air has been in effect in Slovakia since 1997.

It seems that Slovakia still has some way to go before it becomes a non-smoker friendly environment. Doctors say this is partly also the fault of non smokers, who are not assertive enough in claiming their rights.

To be assertive is sometimes really hard, especially in bigger groups of people, says Maria Bratska, from the Department of Psychology at Comenius University in Bratislava. However, asking smokers politely, but assertively, not to smoke, Bratska says, is a way to change the situation instead of just complaining about it, as non smokers sometimes do. Slowly but surely things are changing, she adds.

"I can say that many young people are very good at declaring their rights in a way that is polite but firm. They expect others to respect them. I even know elementary school children, who tell their parents they would like them not to smoke in the living room, or kitchen, for example."

Smoking at public transport stops or at the workplace, where the law also forbids it, is still a common sight. Lighting up in these places can cost you up to 250 euros.

Smoking among adults in Slovakia has stabilized, but Robert Ochaba points to a rather bleaker statistic.

"The number of young smokers is growing, mainly those experimenting with tobacco between 10 and 12. Most alarming is the fact that the number of 16-year-old girls smoking has doubled."