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Europe Plays Catch-up On Smoking Restrictions

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DUBLIN, Ireland

The great Irish writer Oscar Wilde once mused, ''A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?''

Come February, smokers in Ireland will have to indulge in that perfect pleasure outdoors.

It's hard to believe, even for many non-smokers, that the Emerald Isle will outlaw smoking in pubs and restaurants with a New York-style ban.

It's harder still to imagine that Ireland, famous for its smoky bars and where 32% of people smoke, is among the countries leading Europe's crackdown on tobacco. Norway and Holland have passed laws that take effect next year to curb cigarettes in the workplace. Even Greece, which has one of the highest smoking rates in Europe (45%), passed a law that makes government buildings smoke-free and creates non-smoking zones in bars and restaurants.

David Byrne, the health commissioner for the European Union, is on a mission to lower Western Europe's average smoking rate of 34% to the U.S. level of 23%. The EU is pushing through tougher tobacco regulations in its 15 member countries, although it still doles out almost $1 billion a year in subsidies to farmers who grow tobacco.

Among the EU efforts:

* Cigarette packs in all member nations now carry health warnings such as ''Smoking can cause a slow and painful death.''

* Tobacco companies no longer can call their cigarettes ''light'' or ''mild,'' because all cigarettes are deadly. Manufacturers must reduce tar levels next year.

* Cigarette ads in newspapers, on billboards, on the Internet and at sporting events will be banned by mid-2005. Germany, however, is fighting the edict in court.

These rules also will apply to 10 Eastern European countries set to join the EU in the spring. In many of those countries, nearly half of the population smokes.

But as politicians and health officials in countries like Ireland are finding out, the tougher the anti-tobacco law, the louder the outcry from nicotine addicts and bar and restaurant owners, some of whom blame the United States for the new restrictions. ''It's one of the nastier things that we've imported from the United States,'' Tadg O'Sullivan, chief executive of the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, says of the new regulations. His group represents 6,000 pubs outside Dublin.

Rule amended

The enforcement date already has been postponed twice. The Health Ministry was forced to amend the rule to exclude prisons and psychiatric hospitals because they are both workplaces and temporary homes. The change pushed back the enforcement date to at least Feb. 15. There could be further delays. ''We're certainly investigating the possibility of a legal challenge,'' O'Sullivan says.

About 200 pub owners in the county of Kerry have voted to reject the Health Ministry's demand for smoke-free workplaces.

Such acts of rebellion, however, have not swayed the Irish Health Ministry. ''The minister is still committed to the workplace ban, including in bars and restaurants,'' says Terry Reynolds, a spokesman for the Health Ministry. ''Our position is the law is the law, and the owners of premises have the duty to uphold the law.''

Pub owners lament that the ban could go into effect during one of the coldest months of the year (the Norwegians are waiting until April). Worse, it would be the month Ireland plays Scotland and Wales in Rugby. ''Imagine telling 20 Welsh rugby players they can't smoke in here,'' says Naill Lawless, owner of Paddy Cullen in Dublin.

Lawless has applied for a license to put tables and chairs outside his pub, and is installing outdoor heaters. Even so, he expects his business to fall by at least 20% in the first few months of the ban. And he doesn't expect new, non-smoking customers to make up the difference. ''You won't get rich from people coming back to pubs because there's no smoke.''

Mixed results

In New York, which adopted a statewide no-smoking law in July, the results have been mixed. Some restaurant and bar owners say business is as good or better; others say it's off by 40%.

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani fueled the debate here when he visited business leaders in September and told Irish TV station RTÉ, ''Some people want to make the choice of being able to have a cigar or a pipe or a cigarette after dinner, and they should be provided with an opportunity to do that.'' Giuliani later explained that he did not object to New York's smoking ban but was suggesting it is easier to phase in a ban one step at a time.

That is, for the moment, the road Holland is taking. The new law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, excludes bars and restaurants until at least 2005. The Netherlands, which allows marijuana to be sold in cafes, enacted a law this year to stop the sale of cigarettes to children ages 16 and younger.

''I have no doubt that people selling cigarettes don't pay any attention to the law,'' says Trudy Prins, executive director of the Dutch anti-smoking group Stivoro. Six months after the age-restrictions on cigarette sales went into place, ''85% of the children we interviewed said they had no problem buying cigarettes,'' Prins says.

Norway is following Ireland with a blanket ban on April 8.

When it comes to smoking in the workplace, the tobacco industry is lobbying for better ventilation and no-smoking sections. The industry's pitch: Give people a choice.

Adrian Payne, head of corporate, social and regulatory affairs for British American Tobacco, favors the type of restrictions followed in London, where bars and restaurants can choose their own policy, but must have explanatory signs clearly posted at the entry.

''We don't have a problem with smoking restrictions, it's blanket bans that are the real issue,'' says Payne, whose company produces Lucky Strike and Cool. ''We think there should be a choice for smokers and non-smokers.''

In Britain, some restaurants, such as Pizza Hut, have gone smoke-free throughout the country. Others, such as a restaurant in Selfridges department store in central London, began to cater last month to the nicotine crowd: A glass-walled smoking lounge with scatter cushions, water pipes and Cuban cigars is attached to Selfridges' branch of Momo, a North African restaurant.

Concerns that smoking could be banned in London pubs make many smokers fume. ''Absolute rubbish,'' says Rich Griffiths, who works for a moving company in London. ''What do you do in a pub but stand with a pint in one hand and a fag (cigarette) in the other?''

That often is the attitude across Europe. Smoking sections regularly are ignored in restaurants and train stations in Belgium, France and Italy, for example. Asked about the rules, many Italians laugh. ''Ha. You're making a joke,'' says Luca Biagi, 28, a taxi driver. ''Everyone still smokes and still smokes wherever they want. No one pays any attention to these laws.''

To ensure that doesn't happen in Ireland, ''pub police'' will troll watering holes. Lawbreakers will be subject to fines of about $3,720 (3,000 euros) for each offense.

At the Ard More pub in Bray on the outskirts of Dublin, Donal Sammon follows the country's deep social tradition of gathering at the bar after work with his mates for a pint or two or three.

The network design consultant, taking a drag from his cigarette, seems resigned to the new law, but offers a Wildean solution, ''Can we get this place designated a psychiatric ward?''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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