Recalcitrant Bavarians fight pub smoking ban

Recalcitrant Bavarians fight pub smoking banMunich  - Bavaria's anti-smoking legislation was intended as the toughest in all of Germany when it was introduced at the beginning of the year, but putting it into effect has produced paradoxical results.

Pubs across the country's largest state have sidestepped the law by reconstituting themselves as "smokers' clubs."

Munich administrative official Wilfried Blume-Beyerle has called on Environment Minister Otmar Bernhard to find a way to ban these "associations for evading the law," as he calls them.

Blume-Beyerle puts the number of smokers' clubs in the state capital at 700, of some 2,000 registered pubs.

In picturesque Nuremberg, some 220 of 700 corner pubs and beer bars have changed their status, according to city official Hartmut Frommer.

"The trend is sharply upwards," Frommer said. "As it is left to the landlords to decide whether they define their pubs as smoking clubs or not, the legal exception could become the rule."

Right from the start, the law had its dedicated opponents.

The Association to Maintain the Bavarian Pub Culture (VEBWK), founded in December last year, now has more than 60,000 members - landlords intent on continuing the smoking tradition and their guests.

The Association of Bavarian Towns has called on the state government to clarify the position.

"By the time all the pubs have turned themselves into smokers' clubs, we will at last have realized that this was not what was intended," association chairman Hans Schaidinger said.

While the law was clearly formulated, provisions for implementation were vague, Schaidinger added.

The uncertainty has led lower courts to reverse attempts to force landlords to comply with the law, pending clarification.

This week the Munich administrative court ruled the owner of a casino could keep his ashtrays for the time being, in the face of an attempt by the local authority in the town of Freising to get him to put up non-smoking signs.

The case has now gone to the state's highest court - the Bavarian Constitutional Court - with anti-smokers arguing that the health of employees is at stake and the VEBWK seeing the rights of its members infringed.

According to a survey by the mass-circulation Bild newspaper, pubs in the 14 of Germany's 16 states that have implemented a smoking ban have lost up to 30 per cent of their business.

Small pubs in Berlin with just one room - the law here allows bigger pubs to declare the smaller a smokers' room - have lost up to 70 per cent of their turnover, according to Bild.

In Bavaria, the issue has political dimensions. The Christian Social Union (CSU), which has ruled continuously at state level for six decades and which pushed through the stringent law, suffered badly at local elections last month.

Observers attributed at least some of the losses to traditionally recalcitrant Bavarians sending a signal to a nannying state government.

After all, the Nazis were the last to try to ban smoking in public in their attempt to build a healthy nation.

The state government has caved in when it comes to the beer tents - such as those used at the Oktoberfest celebrating Bavarian beer - allowing smoking there for another year at least. (dpa)