Spain's bars and restaurants go smoke-free in tough new law

MADRID, Jan 2, 2011 (AFP) - Smokers stubbed out their cigarettes in tapas bars and restaurants across Spain on Sunday as one of Europe's strictest anti-tobacco laws came into effect.

After a one-day amnesty granted for New Year's Day, the new law banning smoking in all bars, cafes, restaurants and public places -- even some outdoor areas -- was imposed at the stroke of midnight on Saturday.

Two men smoke cigarettes outside a bar in Burgos on January 2, 2011 following the introduction of the new law. AFP

It was a shock for many Spaniards for whom the cafe culture -- lighting up with a few friends while enjoying a drink and tapas -- has been an essential part of daily life.

Establishments overnight began displaying notices on their doors and windows such as "Smoke-Free Area. No Smoking" or showing a lighted cigarette with a red line across it.

In Madrid's historic centre, bars and restaurants were packed for breakfast and for lunch on Sunday despite the new rule. And of the dozen or so visited by AFP, no customers were smoking.

In cold but sunny weather, cafes with outdoor terraces, where smoking is permitted, were doing brisk business.

At the Txacolina bar, it was elbow-room only as dozens of customers, many with children, munched Spanish appetizers and downed beer, wine and vermouth, a traditional Sunday lunchtime drink.

"We have a lot of customers today, but it's only the first day and we have to see what will happen," said the duty manager, Pedro Ayllon. "But I don't think (the new law) will hurt us."

Himself a non-smoker, he welcomed the new law after seven years working in smoke-filled bar.

At the nearby Taberna del Capitan Alatriste restaurant, manager Antonio Pino said lunch reservations were normal for a Sunday.

"It's a fair law as it's the same for everyone, so there will be less problems," he said.

Spain has had an anti-smoking law since January 2006 but the impact was barely noticeable.

It banned smoking in the workplace, on public transport and in shops. But it allowed owners of bars, restaurants and cafes to decide whether to ban smoking or not. Most, faced with a drop in business, naturally chose to permit their customers to light up.

The new law bans smoking in all enclosed public spaces, including bars, restaurants and nightclubs and makes it illegal to smoke in children's parks or anywhere on school or hospital grounds.

At the Cafe de San Millan, one smoker who tried to light up was reminded by a waiter that it was no longer permitted.

"It's stupidity," Carlos Montesinos, 47, said of the new law as he was forced to smoke in the street outside. "I think they should provide separate smoking zones."

Rosa Atienzo, 58, agreed: "It's very tough for me. Usually I would have a cigarette with my breakfast. Now I will have to smoke outside."

French tourist Lionel Roesel said he thought Spaniards would have a harder time accepting the new restrictions than French citizens when a similar law took effect there in 2008.

"In France, we all complained at the beginning, but now we can go into bars with children," said the 47-year-old financial director.

"But I think that for Spain it will be much harder. In Spain, there is a stronger culture of bars and cigarettes."

Cafe, bar and restaurant owners as well as patrons who do not enforce or respect the new legislation face fines of between 30 and 600,000 euros.

The catering industry is concerned it will take a hit.

Jose Luis Guerra, vice president of the Spanish Hotel and Catering Association, said bars and restaurants had taken a beating for the past 31 months because of the economic crisis.

He estimated the ban could lead to a further 5.0-percent drop in sales in restaurants, about 10 percent in bars and 15 percent in night clubs.

Working at the door of central Madrid's Capucho cocktail bar, 60-year-old Juan Manuel Casado, a former smoker, predicted a slight drop in business at the start of the ban.

"But then people will get used to it as they have done in Italy, Greece, Ireland, every country."

Anti-smoking campaigners in Spain, where there are an estimated 50,000 smoking related deaths each year, were overjoyed.

"This year, 2011, I can say the Three Wise Men have brought a great gift for Spain: the publication of this new law," said Jose Luis Diaz-Maroto Munoz, a family doctor and expert on the effects of smoking.

He said it would discourage children taking up the habit, encourage smokers to quit and "allow us all to breathe air that is not polluted by smoke".

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