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Germany, smokers' stronghold, edges toward ban in public spaces

German lawmakers meet in Berlin today to discuss bringing in a nationwide smoking ban in restaurants, bars and other public places, a move that threatens to extinguish one of the last bastions of smoking in Europe.

Members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition are holding talks with officials from the Consumer Protection Ministry after a motion was introduced in parliament calling on the government to give people greater protection from secondary smoke and seeking an even wider ban. “We don't want to and can't prohibit smoking,” Deputy Agriculture and Consumer Protection Minister Gerd Mueller said in a November 9 statement on his ministry's Web site. “But smokers' voluntary decision to smoke should no longer lead to involuntary risks to non-smokers.” A ban in Germany, Europe's biggest tobacco market, where a non-smoking bar or restaurant is still a rarity, would bring the country into line with the 13 out of 25 European Union states to have introduced legislation to outlaw smoking in public places. Until then, as France, Finland and Belgium plan more smoking restrictions in 2007, Germany's lack of a ban is increasingly out of step with the rest of Europe. “I loathe going out in Berlin because my eyes turn bright red, my hair stinks of smoke and all of my clothes, even my hand bag has to be hung out on the balcony for days to get rid of the smell,” Dorothy Stein, a masseuse who splits her time between New York and Berlin, said in an e-mailed statement. “People may say that it's a matter of freedom to be able to smoke everywhere but it's also an issue of freedom to be able to breath fresh air.”

Some 27% of Germany's entire population, or about 22 million people, smoked as of 2005, a figure little changed from 10 years ago, according to the Federal Statistics Office. Smoking, along with nutrition and being overweight, is the No. 1 risk factor in deaths from cancer, according to the Heidelberg- based German Cancer Research Center. “There are too many families for whom heartbreak has arrived in the form of cancer, heart disease and sudden infant death syndrome,” Lothar Binding, a Social Democrat lawmaker who helped introduce the motion to parliament, said in an interview on November 1. Health awareness is “much more strongly rooted in society than it used to be,” he said. Similar concerns led to a wave of smoking bans being introduced across Europe.

Malta, Ireland and Norway introduced bans in 2004, followed a year later by countries including Italy and Sweden, according to the lower house of parliament Web site. A ban on smoking in public places in England and Wales including all pubs and private clubs comes into force in mid-2007. France is to introduce the strictest ban within the EU on February 1 next year, the Web site states, with a complete ban on smoking in all public places. In Germany, some 114 of 614 lawmakers from all parties have signed the smoking motion, yet it's been put on hold because many of Merkel's Christian Democrats don't want a total smoking ban. They favor allowing smoking in certain restaurants as long as smoking rooms are separated from non-smoking areas, Binding said. “I don't welcome a total ban even as a non-smoker,” Economy Minister Michael Glos, a member of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, told reporters in Berlin yesterday. It “restricts people's personal freedom,” he said, adding that he would prefer to see smoking and non-smoking locations with the decision left to the owners. (Bloomberg)