Zero tolerance for smokers

New law puts an end to the present atmosphere of permissiveness and non-compliance

The anti-tobacco law that has been in effect in Spain since January 1, 2006 is one of the most permissive and least respected in Europe. In a movement of the pendulum, Congress has now approved a new law that, as well as prohibiting smoking in all closed public places, will be the first in Europe to restrict tobacco in certain open-air spaces, such as entrances to hospitals.

This is a radical law, even more ambitious than the one proposed by the Health Ministry, in which two weighty arguments have prevailed: the rights of non-smokers (some 70 percent of the population) and the need to protect minors.

There remains only one parliamentary step (its passage through the Senate) in which no substantial modifications are expected, owing to the political balances existing in the upper chamber, where the left and the Basque and Catalan nationalists constitute a clear majority against the Popular Party, which would have preferred to set up small smoking areas (fishbowls) in closed public spaces.

The role that the Spanish healthcare profession has played in the preparation of the reform has been a determining factor. The 30 professional associations that make up the National Committee for the Prevention of Tobacco Addiction have imposed their hard-line views on a widespread habit which causes 60,000 premature deaths every year, some 1,500 of whom are passive smokers.

All the parliamentary political parties have finally recognized that smoking, as well as being harmful to all those who share a given closed space, is a bad example to children. Hence the additional prohibition of smoking in playgrounds and schoolyards, even if they are in the open air.

The devastating effects of tobacco addiction were already abundantly known in 2005, when the first Zapatero government enacted the present law. What has changed since that time, is the lesser pressure now exerted by the economic sectors most directly concerned: the tobacco growers and manufacturers, and the bar and restaurant industry.

The former has, for some years now, been gradually adapting to the anti-smoking restrictions that have been imposed throughout much of the world (the United States and a dozen European countries, among others). The latter sector has increasingly yielded to the persuasion of statistics which show that the economic impact of anti-smoking measures is minimal.

These facts having now dispelled the fear of damaging the important Spanish bar and restaurant industry, and in view of a public opinion that favorsmore drastic prohibition, the legislators have finally opted for a law whose laudably radical approach is proportional to the dramatic effects of tobacco addiction on public health.

Along the way, a course has sensibly been steered around certain refractory obstacles. For example, smoking rooms are allowed in hotels, while the consumption of tobacco is also permitted in smokers’ clubs, certain conditions being demanded which presumably will prevent this exception from being exploited as a way to circumvent the law.

(Published by El País - October 26, 2010)

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