Germany is latest country to introduce anti-smoking laws. Its 16 federal states have agreed to outlaw smoking in public buildings but stopped short of a blanket ban in pubs and restaurants as introduced in a number of other European countries. The state premiers must still approve the ban. While the move is unlikely to meet the approval of Germany’s 25 million smokers (almost one third of the population), it does has the backing of Angela Merkel’s government. Federal Consumer Affairs Minister Horst Seehofer hailed what he called a long overdue move saying “there is no substance in a room more poisonous to health than smoke”.
But Germany has a strong post-war sense of freedom of expression that will find this law an infringement of basic rights. Germans may also object for historical reasons. This is not the first time the nation has tried to implement a smoking ban. Germany had the world's strongest anti smoking movement in the 1930s and early 1940s under Hitler. The Nazis had surprisingly enlightened ideas about cigarettes such as banning smoking in public spaces, no tobacco advertising, and restricted tobacco rations for women (though not for men, presumably the boys needed a puff after a hard day’s work with the Wehrmacht). Nazi German scientists had a highly refined science called epidemiology which studies the factors that affect the health of populations. They were particularly strong on the effects of tobacco. Nazi scientists were the first to establish there was a link between tobacco and lung cancer.
Many Nazi leaders like Himmler were vocal opponents of smoking. But Hitler was the most adamant, characterising tobacco as revenge: "the wrath of the Red Man against the White Man for having been given hard liquor." But then Hitler spoke with the typical anti-tobacco zeal of an ex-smoker . Nevertheless despite official disapproval the industry thrived. In the 1940s German anti-tobacco activists struggled to point out that whereas Hitler was now a non-smoker as were fellow fascist leaders Mussolini and Franco, the three allied heads Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt were all fond of tobacco. It is unlikely this campaign met with any success.
Not many of today’s world leaders will openly admit to a fondness for nicotine products. Fidel Castro was renowned for his love of cigars but even he kicked the habit in 1986 for health reasons. And while he continues to struggle for life in hospital, Cuba banned smoking on public transport, in shops and other closed spaces last month. More than half of Cuban adults are thought to smoke, and 30% of preventable cancer deaths are linked to smoking. The commerce ministry announced the move saying it was "taking into account the damage to human health caused by the consumption of cigarettes and cigars, with the objective of contributing to a change in the attitudes of our population." It is a big step for a country with a $200 million cigar export industry.
Ninety miles to the north, the US also has political problems with tobacco. Although Nazi scientists were quick to chide Roosevelt’s habit, no US president since him has smoked. It’s possible that Barack Obama’s high profile presidential campaign could be more likely derailed by his well-publicised battles with nicotine addiction as any issues related to his background or his views on Iraq. He is one of a quarter of the American adult population (almost 50 million) who smokes cigarettes. Obama doesn’t puff publicly but stories of his 'dirty little secret' in political circles could prove poisonous in an era when smokers are looked down upon in America.
But the US is also home to two of the world’s biggest tobacco companies; Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris) and RJ Reynolds (the third biggest British American Tobacco is based in London). They have vast political influence that has kept uniform smoking laws off the Washington agenda. But individual jurisdictions are taking action. California has some of the toughest and most extensive anti-smoking legislation anywhere in the world. Smoking is banned in public buildings, restaurants, bars and enclosed workplaces and also on its famous beaches.
The recent court defeats have also left the tobacco companies looking overseas for easier pickings. Germany has been one of Philip Morris’s happy hunting grounds and one of the countries that share the manufacturer’s views. In 2002, Germany argued to weaken the draft of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) on the issue of advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Using arguments often promoted by transnational tobacco corporations, Germany made the case that tobacco advertising is protected as freedom of expression. Its position on the issue of tobacco advertising was in part attributed to expressed concerns over constitutional conflicts. The new laws would appear to have overcome these conflicts.
The German decision follows the lead of a number of European countries. England is to implement a smoking ban in workplaces and enclosed public spaces follow similar decisions by Italy, France and Spain. Ireland led the way in the EU by imposing tough anti-smoking legislation in March 2004 which banned smoking in pubs, restaurants and other enclosed workplaces. While the Irish laws were blamed for plummeting bar sales, the laws have been generally welcomed, especially by pub employees. According to a 2005 study, the new law has proven popular, even with smokers: 83% of Irish smokers say the law was a "good" or "very good" thing. Berlin café owner Cynthia Barcomi is impatient for similar laws in Germany. "I think it's really cowardly," she said. "How much more information do they need about the dangers of passive smoking? Does the rest of the world have to ban smoking before Germany does it?"