As a non-smoker for going on four months now, I’m pleased to see that the Grand Coalition running Germany has agreed on a smoking ban for almost all public places:
Smoking in smoking in theatres, cinemas, hospitals and schools will be banned in a drive to toughen some of the most lax smoking rules in western Europe. It will also be banned in all forms of public transport.
Health Minister Ulla Schmidt called the compromise a step in the right direction. "This is an enormous advance for the protection of non-smokers and for health protection in Germany," she said, adding that she hoped the coalition parties’ broader parliamentary groups would accept the deal.
Nearly a third of all German adults smoke regularly and close to 140,000 die every year from tobacco-related illnesses — far more than from traffic accidents, alcohol, drugs and AIDS combined.
The ban doesn’t apply to bars and pubs, and apparently restaurants will be allowed to maintain separate smoking areas. I don’t have a problem with somebody smoking in my presence, so long as there’s a little air circulation. But ay, there’s the rub: in Germany, "a little air circulation" is called a "draft," and, to quote Spiegel English: "A lot of Germans don’t like drafts. Some even seem to have an irrational fear of moving air, believing it can cause pneumonia, flu, colds, clogged arteries and just about every malady imaginable." Thus, go into an average bar here during the winter and you’ll see visible, choking clouds of second-hand smoke that have been resting in the motionless air for hours (if not years). Sometimes I have to wash my clothes twice to get the stinging, acrid tang of used tobacco out of them.
So, as far as this goes, it’s probably a good idea, and I congratulate the Grosse Koalition.
But now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to rant at German journalists for a few short moments. One of the most tiresome stereotypes around is of those "puritanical" Americans who passed laws banning smoking in public places. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s — that is, before European governments began to ban indoor smoking themselves — lazy German journalists, on slow news days, ridiculed America every time some city or state in the U.S. moved to restrict smoking. As this Tagesspiegel article put it (G) two years ago, "for years, Europans mocked the American example. But now, the old continent is following the New World…in ever-faster steps." Now, of course, these journalists sometimes quoted the odd German doctor saying: "Hey, this is actually not such a bad idea." But that was rare; the snide putdowns, if placed end-to-end, would reach to Saturn and back.
Suddenly, it turns out that banning smoking in enclosed public spaces was not some ludicrous paroxysm of American puritanism, but rather a sensible policy that has saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars in medical expenses. Something Europe, perhaps, should have started doing decades ago. All this time, snide journalists did a disservice to their readers by treating the smoking ban as nothing more than an occasion to mock America, rather than explore potentially sound public-policy idea. (Especially for a country like Germany, which has to reform its health system every few years to keep it financially viable.)
Therefore, to every European journalist who trotted out this lazy cliché all these years: you condescending snobs are hereby invited to come to Düsseldorf and kiss my big fat American ass.
There, I’m glad I got that out of my system. Now it’s back to thoughtful commentary.