Cretans are among the top smokers in Europe, and in 2002, when Greece passed its "first" law banning smoking in public and private workplaces, the country's nicotine addicts, especially those who lived on its largest island, snickered into their espresso cups and lit up another Karelia. As it turned out, that "law" was totally ineffective anyway, since it permitted "special" cases where (and this is the actual language) "the manager of the workplace may allow smoking." Say, what?
Well, actually, no one – not even members of parliament who passed the bill – could figure it out, either, so in 2008 a new law was passed, this one banning smoking in all public places and workplaces. Still, the ashtrays overflowed – yes, proprietors throughout Crete still put ashtrays on every table in the no smoking areas. Then, on July 1, 2009, the bill was again amended, calling for a general smoking ban in all public places, including bars, cafes and night clubs without the facility manager allowing smoking, unless the whole unit is less than 70 square meters. Still, the Bics flicked in bars and restaurants throughout the island, with neither management nor law enforcers attempting to distinguish the flame. Since the "no smoking" law was doing so well, the country's governing body, as of September 1, 2010, added another amendment – this time banning smoking in every closed public space.
There's an interesting footnote to the latest law, which reads: "Smoking is totally forbidden in private or government establishments, with the exception of psychiatric clinics where it may be authorized by a written medical opinion only for therapeutic purposes." I guess, simply put, they're telling us you have to be crazy to smoke.
It is obvious that in Greece, and especially in Crete, Greeks will continue to smoke in bars and restaurants, regardless ineffectual laws, until more drastic measures are taken. As one local non-smoker said between bites of his souvlaki in a smoke-filled cafe, "Since no one can figure out what the actual law means, the police don't want to get involved so the store owners continue to do what they want. Something more has to be done. . . people have to act on their own and realize it's just not right smoke while other people are trying to enjoy their food."
Well, sir, that is what is happening in the municipality of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nikolas), Crete's fourth largest city, with a population about the size of East Hampton on Long Island – which is now the the first "non-smoking" city of Crete. And like the Hamptons, Agios Nikolaos is a seaside city, with a tourist population numbering hundreds of thousands from May through September. Recently, the members of the Agios Nikolaos Food and Entertainment Association decided to push ashtrays outside their shops and unanimously agreed to immediately and completely ban smoking inside their stores.
"If the cafe or taverna has an outside terrace, all well and good," said a spokesperson for the association. "That's where they can smoke . . . but not indoors."
This decision, which was enthusiastically welcomed by the municipality of Agios Nikolaos, seems to be supported by the citizens of the region as well. The members of the association issued its ruling following a statement by the Department of Environmental Health and Sanitary Control of the Department of Public Health and Social Care, of the Lassithi Region, where it announced: "The application of the law is not a matter of "patriotism", neither of the shopkeepers nor of the smokers themselves. It is a law of the state, which has been much more prominent in the media than most other laws."
The spokesperson for the association said the ruling will be strictly enforced, and, if need be, police assistance will be called upon. And, there's no question that enforcement will need all the help it can get. In Greece, 72 percent of licensed establishments are restaurants that still allow smoking, the highest figure in the European Union, according to a recent study. And, it's no wonder, since some 37 percent of Greeks smoke, compared to an European Union average of 26 percent.
Actually, anti-smoking laws in Greece date back to the mid-19th century. An 1856 royal decree issued by the country’s first post-independence monarch, king Otto of Bavaria, forbade the use of pipes and cigarettes in public offices and shops. That law was as effective as the current one, it seems. However, if and when the new law is enforced, violators could be fined 50-500 euros ($56-$560), and the establishment where the infraction occurs could get fines of 500 to a 1,000 euros. The key word, of course, is enforcement.
"In the end, we will join the ranks of civilized nations… what are we, the idiots of Europe?” former health minister Dimitris Avramopoulos said when the latest law was signed.