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Spain’s smoking ban: stubbing out freedom

An anti-tobacco law in place since 2006 gives Spanish bars, restaurants and their clients the right to decide. But an imminent reform threatens to make that right –and the evocative smell of smoke– a thing of the past.


The new anti-smoking law will bring Spain into line with the stricter EU countries. Photo:

Time was when the smell of Spain was a heady blend of coffee, cologne, and tobacco. The coffee is still there, and one still gets the occasional whiff of Heno de Pravia, but the Ducados are increasingly being stubbed out; and when a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants comes into force in January 2011, they will be gone forever.

Yes, Spain is finally extending its smoking ban to all public places.

The initial smoking ban was first introduced in 2006, and was meant to apply to all public places. But the Popular Party’s Madrid boss, Esperanza Aguirre, played the regional card, challenging the government and saying that she wouldn’t be enforcing the law in the capital’s bars and restaurants, which, if they were larger than 100 square metres had to create separate smoking areas; if their floor space was less than 100 square metres, they were free to decide whether they wanted to be smoking or non-smoking. The rest of the country followed suit. Common sense seemed to have prevailed.

A year later, a study by the Spanish Consumers’ Organisation said that only around 12 percent of bars and restaurants had decided to go smoke free. Surveys show that 44 percent of Spaniards oppose tougher restrictions, and 47 percent are in favour of extending the ban.

In the meantime, smoking seems to have declined generally: even the number of smokers in restaurants has fallen. Larger establishments either seat the few smokers in special fishtanks, or have created designated smoking areas.

But in mid-October, a parliamentary commission finally passed a bill that brings Spain into line with the European Union’s strictest anti-smoking nations and many US states that bar smoking in all enclosed public spaces.

The government is confident that it can have the new law approved by the Senate and on the statute books in time for January 2 — allowing the condemned one last smokin’ New Year’s Eve.

From a civil liberties perspective, the imposition of a Europe-wide ban on smoking is cause for concern. Firstly, it is an imposition; none of us have been consulted on the policy. And while the talk is of bans, what we are really saying is that smoking in public places, in bars and restaurants, is now illegal. So we’ve gone from measures aimed at protecting our health to a law that we can be prosecuted under if we don’t obey it. Little wonder that opponents of the smoking ban point out that it was the Nazis who pioneered the policy.

The current solution in Spain, whereby bars and restaurants decide if they wish to be either full-on smokers’ zones, or to designate areas for smokers, seemed a reasonable solution: it has worked by and large, and has prompted many establishments to install powerful extraction systems to reduce smoke in the atmosphere. The numbers of smokers has fallen, but those who continue to do so have not been made to feel like social pariahs.

But the new ban removes any element of a reasonable compromise. Under the new legislation it will not be possible even to open a private smokers’ bar or club. As things stand, it is quite possible at some point in the future for the state to move toward banning smoking in the street, then in the car, and then in the home.

The folly of prohibition

What is of particular concern is that these increasingly stringent moves on the part of governments to protect us from ourselves come at a time when other prohibitionist policies towards the consumption of illegal drugs have not only been manifestly shown not to work, but they have created far bigger problems than those they attempted to resolve in the first place.

The last three decades have seen the steady implementation of laws punishing drugs use. Back in 1991 marihuana consumption was recriminalized, as was that of other illegal substances in public. The result has been no reduction in drugs consumption, while the prison population has mushroomed, with around half of prisoners jailed over the last 20 years there for drugs-related offences.

The campaign to stop people smoking is driven by the same, questionable logic.

At the same time, the two main parties’ policies on smoking expose some interesting contradictions.

There is relatively little for the EU’s governments to do these days: they have no say in the running of the economy, and with the exception of the UK, they generally avoid foreign adventures. But they still have to be seen to be doing something, and social policy is the most visible way of achieving this. Spain’s Socialist Party government, which takes its lead from the UK’s increasingly intrusive state, understands this well. It simultaneously passes progressive legislation speeding up divorce, permitting same-sex marriage, and allowing abortion on demand, while toeing the EU’s repressive line on smoking and drugs.

The PP on the other hand, rails against the breakdown of society that the Socialist Party’s social policies are supposedly helping bring about, while its fundamentally conservative nature means that, paradoxically, it better reflects the tolerant attitudes that once made Spain, like other Mediterranean societies, so different; a difference in this case that is symbolized for the Romantics among us by the enduring appeal of a smoky bar.

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Published: Nov 10 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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17 Comments for “Spain’s smoking ban: stubbing out freedom”

  1. A smoky bar might be a romantic thing for you but I (and many others like me, the majority in fact) can't think of anything worse than having a drink or meal completely spoilt by someone else's noxious tobacco smoke. Not to mention the now established dangers of environmental tobacco smoke.

    The fact is smokers no longer display any common sense or any sense at all. They light up wherever they are allowed to and give two fingers to anyone else. Long gone are the days of a smoker asking if anyone minds. My experience is that they often become aggressive when asked not to light up. If anything I wish the government had gone further. Like the South Africans: There even the "picket line" of smokers at entrances to public buildings is done away with because you have to be at least 50 meters away. What a joy it is to breathe fresh air…

  2. "The campaign to stop people smoking is driven by the same, questionable logic."

    Maybe the main emphasis of the ban, in public places, is not to stop people smoking but concerns of secondary smoke inhalation to others. However it is interesting to note that a similar ban imposed in Amsterdam has now been reversed for those who own and work at their bars / Cafe less than 90m.

  3. This rag of a "newspaper" is geting more like an agit prop sheet.I thought when it started it was reporting,INDEPENDENTLY,the news in Spain:something unusual in a country where there is no neutral or independent viewpoint,but no.This article,to call it such,is really an apology for smoking:pathetic!!!!

  4. I´m actually in favour of smokers being allowed to smoke-there´s nothing more encouraging than watching,in VIPS for ex,the smoke addicts in the fishtanks,seeing them surounded by smoke,breathing in the disgusting stuff,and knowing that they are destroying themselves and their loved ones.Personally,I celebrate the fact they are killing themselves-at least my dery cleaning bill will come down.

    The article is as idiotic as the hostelry,or whatever,associaton attacking the govt for the bad timing of the law and how their income will go down,STRANGELY forgetting all those who be dying of cancer.

    Nick Lyne-smoker,RIP.

  5. Guy, I object. I am something of a romantic (honest!) but do not find a smokey bar remotely appealing.

    But, even as a rabid anti-smoker, I agree that this law goes too far in preventing smokers damaging themselves in private public places.

  6. To be clear, I am very much against taking away people's freedoms. Especially when disguised under veils such as "public health" or "Patriot Act". And I too get romantic and brought back to better days (that I actually never experienced) when my nostrils are hit by that wonderful mix of tobacco and sweet perfume that so captures Madrid in the deepest layer of my consciousness.

    The problem, for me, with Spaniards that smoke, is the utter lack respect for non-smokers who — aside from maybe having health concerns — could just be trying to enjoy — undisturbed — the delicate taste of a meal or the smell of fresh coffee and baked goods.

    These vestiges of so-called "democratic rights" gained when Franco left the scene also include throwing waste out of your car window or onto the sidewalk, dumping "escombros" on any piece of land that is not fenced (to actually prevent this), or double-parking (even in narrow streets) to go shopping or talk to a friend on the sidewalk. With impunity.

    On these grounds, I can support a law that encourages a general respect for others in public space (and other good citizenry). But labeling it as such could cause a stink.

    It may take a generation for these instincts to be instilled in the public, but it usually requires governments to start steering things in the rights direction. Otherwise we would have far more dangerous gasheater installations, cars with insufficient brakes, and chemical factories polluting our water ways.

    Allowing for private smoking clubs may work, but you would need to not allow these to also serve food. Circumvention and lax enforcement is a national sport, as you know.

  7. As a smoker I wish to breath clean air too !? If you believe that stop smoking makes the air more clean to breath in then you are quite naive!! lets ban cars,BBQ,fires,parfumes,candle lights,cleanser and so on…..Bars are not health centers!!Go elsewhere if you dont like smoking go to a nonsmoking place-let the owners decide if they are smoking or non-smoking.

    It could also be pleasant with a kidfree restaurant,where I can enjoy my meal without crying and screaming children!!

    I know of a evil man back in the 30-40ties who had this great dream of how his new world should be,Healthy white people,vegetarians (ban all meat)no smoking,no drinking…you maybe know this man as HITLER!

    If you are favour of the smoking ban you are favour of this man.

    BTW search for antismoking movements-they are payed for by Big Pharma!

  8. Words of a smoker, no doubt. Comparing smoking bans in public places to Hitler and Nazi Germany are pathetic. Correo has lost major points with this shoddy piece of reporting.

  9. I have stopped smoking only 5 weeks ago and am originally from Ireland where the smoking ban was a shock and never expected to be fully implemented.

    The application of a total ban of smoking does take away the freedom of decision and apply the nanny state control of politicians to the masses, however, the ban will be accepted, have no doubts about that.

    It will only take a few stories of fines and police being called to sort out the few rebels who will evidentially try to smoke in their local bar Jan 2nd and nearly everyone will step into line.

    Also, i have to (slightly) agree with Malcolm above, the article appears to invite criticism and comment although not a "rag" yet 😉

    Schaggi, you made me laugh with your Hitler comparison, i can only assume and hope your anger is temporary and thats not your real opinion as such stupidity is rare these days.

    Oh, and do i approve or disapprove of the law??? Lets see what happens.

  10. "One person's freedom ends, where anothers person's freedom begins"

  11. Hey Nick, perhaps you can mention whether you are a smoker or not.

    I (a non-smoker) am counting the days until the smoking ban with eager anticipation. Spain will finally join the rest of the civilized world.

    I don't see why anyone has the right to pollute crowded rooms with cancer-causing fumes. Why should other people be forced to put their health at risk just so that you can indulge your addictions?

    Bringing up prohibition is a very stupid argument. If someone is drinking alcohol, it's kind of hard for other people to get drunk by breathing in their fumes.

    • Maybe it is a good moment to point out that no, Nick Lyne is not a smoker, despite the arguments he put forward in his article. Nor does Iberosphere have a "pro-smoking" line. Our writers are free (within reason!) to give whatever angle they like on a particular issue, even though many readers might disagree strongly.

  12. The prisons are not full of marihuana-smoking or even coke-taking freedom fighters. Usually banged up are those who have tried to earn some desperately needed cash out of the fact that drugs draw in big money, maybe because of their illegality, but I don't think it's comparable, banning smoking in public places and banning hard drugs, the law isn't banning smoking per se, just giving others a chance not to breathe in the fumes.

  13. My personal experience a couple of months back (related on my website says it all for me.

    ''I popped in to a local bar in El Raso for a coffee the other day – only the weather was so nice I decided to sit outside in the sunshine. I picked up the menu and was about to order some lunch when a middle-aged English couple plonked themselves down on the next table and promptly lit up a couple of Benson and Hedges.

    Within seconds I was inhaling as much nicotine as they were – and these particular ciggies were just the first of four each that these two unfortunate drug addicts poisoned themselves with in the next hour or so.

    Fortunately, I wasn’t there to share the joy of passively permeating my lungs and clothes with the fumes of their cancer sticks. I had long since upped myself and moved to another area of the bar where no one was polluting the air.

    OK, 30 years after giving up my own 20-a-day habit, I accept that I’m a boring, sanctimonious old ex-smoker.

    But where’s the justice when an innocuous woman having a quiet coffee has to move in order to accommodate people indulging in an unhealthy, unsocial, even life-threatening habit?

    Surely it’s the smokers who should be banished. Preferably to a suitably-title Cancer Corner that might help them realise just how much damage they are doing to themselves and everyone else.

    All I can say is thank God for the introduction of UK-type smoking laws on January 2, 2011 – and the booting of the nicotine brigade up the proverbial dog-end.''

  14. So will Spain's smoking go into the men's room?

    On a personal level I will be now able to visit Spanish restaurants in the winter. At least in the summer I can head straight to the window and open it very wide to be able to withstand the inevitable smoking not just the puros after the meals but quite often cigarettes before and during the meals.

    Not a health issue for me at all. I just prefer to be able to breathe. Being in the presence of cigarette smoke for a few minutes makes me blocked up for a couple of days.

    Yes I have no problem at all with people smoking. I just don't want to be in their presence when they do.

    But I am surprised that more bars and restaurants in Spain did not declare themselves as non-smoking to capture the non-smoking market.

    Clearly people in Spain are much more tolerant to smoke than I am. If there is a group it seems they will be more likely to accommodate the smokers than the non-smokers and go to a smoking restaurant.

    Everybody has their own definition of "anti-social table habits". I suspect many table smokers would find belching or flatulence or urinating at the table unacceptable despite being perfectly natural consequences of consuming good food and wine.

    It is all about externalities. As Martin said: "One person's freedom ends, where anothers person's freedom begins".

    And on that I have no problem at all with heroin, marijuana or other drug use in public or even at a restaurant table provided it is not smoked. Drug injection or snorting at the table is fine with me. And tobacco snuff taking is also perfectly fine as well.

    Not a health issue for me at all. Just externalities.

  15. Totally agree with Warren above though tgis sounds a bit innocent;"Clearly people in Spain are much more tolerant to smoke"-no tolerance at all but rather "can't be bothered","pereza" or "dejadez" or too much effort to do anything.

  16. I loved your post.Really thank you! Fantastic.

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