Indoor smoking: a sad Austrian story

In 2017, the newly elected Austrian government decided to reverse a previously passed law to completely ban indoor smoking in bars and restaurants. The Austrian public reacted with big protests and petitions – all without success. The motives of the Austrian politicians are very questionable and raise serious questions about their sense of responsibility towards citizens.

In 2015, the Austrian government decided to ban indoor smoking in Austrian bars and restaurants. Up until that point smoking was still allowed in marked, clearly delimited areas or, if the area was less than 50 m2 in total, the owners could decide whether to allow it or not. The law was supposed to come into force in May 2018. In 2017, shortly after the general elections, the new government announced that the law was to be overturned. Smoking would still be allowed in delimited areas.

This decision was followed by huge protests from healthcare professionals and the general public. Why would the government cancel such a progressive law?
Since Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s newly elected prime minister and leader of the ÖVP, needed to form a coalition to reach the absolute majority in the national assembly, he had to decide between the previous coalition partner SPÖ or the far-right party FPÖ. The FPÖ, led by Heinz Christian Strache, made it one of their conditions to reverse the smoking ban to form a government with the ÖVP (L5-6). Sebastian Kurz decided to negotiate with the FPÖ due to several difficulties the ÖVP and SPÖ faced in the past and due to new common interests in migration politics with the FPÖ. He finally accepted the FPÖ’s condition to reverse the smoking ban on the back of the health of thousands of people in order to be able to form a government. A very questionable move.

Smoking causes death. You do not need to be a scientist to understand and accept this as a fact. In numbers, smoking is responsible for the death of 13’000 people each year in Austria. Passive smoking is responsible for around 1000 of these deaths every year, and this number could be reduced by banning public indoor smoking. In many countries, including Italy, Sweden, the UK and the US, it has been demonstrated that restrictions on public smoking is leading to a very rapid decrease in smoking-related deaths. The Austrian society of pathology stated these facts in an open letter to the Austrian government. In support of this, a petition called “Don’t smoke has been signed by 881’692 Austrian citizens. Both of these measures unfortunately had no effect. In October 2018, when the number of signatures was made public, the government stated that they would not let the Austrian citizens decide if the law should come into force or not.

This case makes you wonder about the motives of some politicians. Responsible politicians should be concerned about the health and the well-being of their citizens. The current Austrian government is apparently neither concerned with the health of Austria’s citizens, nor with the costs that smoking is causing for the healthcare system. Why would Sebastian Kurz and Heinz Christian Strache not accept a law that would make people healthier, and save lives and money?

Heinz Christian Strache, who is a well-known chain smoker himself, is supported by many bar and restaurant owners and by a large number of smokers in Austria. He seems to consciously take decisions to keep the goodwill of a pool of voters that is against the smoking ban, even though it has been shown clearly that the general public is sharing a different opinion. The fact that the government could save lives and money is simply ignored in order to follow his personal party interests. Sebastian Kurz, a non-smoker, on the other hand did not see any other option than to accept Heinz Christian Strache’s will to be able to form a government. He stated that his personal opinion as a non-smoker is to ban indoor smoking, but that he was forced to make this compromise. It is not surprising that the Austrian word of the year 2018 is “Schweigekanzler”, literally meaning “The prime minister who remains silent”.

It is truly sad to witness how Austrian politicians are trying to win the goodwill of a specific pool of voters or to try to succeed politically by forming a government, knowingly accepting the fact that they endanger the citizens of the country they lead.

 

Anna K. Stelling-Germani

 

Received: 29.11.18, Ready: 06.01.19, Editors: FG, RG.

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