Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Smoking Ban in Berlin

I don't profess to be militant anti-smoker but even I can appreciate the definite advantages of the recent smoking ban here in Berlin. As of the 1st of January it has been my pleasure to escape the commonplace problem of leaving a favorite bar/cafe/restaurant feeling as though a good long walk to and from the subway would help me "air out" before going home. Then upon reaching home, feeling the need to hang my coat out on the balcony because putting on a freezing cold and possibly stiff leather coat in the morning is much preferred to one that smells like an ashtray.

What most Americans (and many Germans) don't understand is that in American public spots there are rules governing how much the air turnover must be within an allotted time. These rules keep bar owners on their toes making sure that the place is well-ventilated. Unfortunately most of the German bars/restaurants/cafes are in old buildings which don't lend themselves well to the whole air circulation factor, thus the air in most of these places is always MUCH nastier than even the smokiest American location.

The next reason for the disagreeable smoke issue is the simple fact that more Germans smoke than Americans. As you may know smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics, and of course I have some for ya... around 19% of Americans enjoy lighting up the penis-shaped cancer stick, while 34% of Germans favor getting their oral gratification from the coffin nail... almost twice as many!!!

Since the beginning of the year I've been keeping an eye on the people around me in public locations. There was the Italian restaurant close to the office that actually provided an ashtray for a group of well-dressed men who were smoking cigars and cigarettes as they sat in what was obviously a stammtisch situation (not easily translated into English, but let's just say that they hang out in that restaurant enough to be considered "regulars" and so get special allownaces - in Germany this can be extended into having their favorite table saved for them... and it seems to also include smoking privileges).

When I went to the always edgy Prenzlauer Berg White Trash Fast Food there was no big surprise to see a few people lighting up, but through the whole evening I think I saw three people resisting the new rule. While I noticed that the wait staff didn't put out ashtrays, I have no idea if anything was said to the rebels. There was however a steady stream of people leaving the restaurant only to return a few minutes later... I assume they were getting some "fresh air" if you know what I mean.

Just last weekend we popped our heads into the quite famous Melitta Sundström for a meeting with "No Nickname Guy" and Adam of "That Queer Expatriate". I say it that way... popped our heads in... because in the years we've been going to this place I think I can say with authority we've only been inside once or twice to pee out the lovely drinks we were consuming on the sidewalk. As I remember, even this was almost too much smoke. My first ever time inside I had trouble finding the toilet because the sign was at such a height that the layer of smoke was obscuring it. We did sit down and have a drink but unfortunately the place still has that stench of years of cigarette build-up, hopefully they do a little renovation in the next few months.

That same evening we checked out Schwuz which is a dance/concert/bar underneath the Melitta Sundström. It was my first time there, but I was not disappointed with my expectation of low ceilings and slightly wild clientèle. What I knew immediately was that there were smokers somewhere... and they were... all holed up in one of the back rooms. When we walked into the room as we checked out the whole bar, it didn't take long to decide two things... one, this is the smoking room... and two, let's get the hell out of this room. What was funny about Schwuz was that they kept a frequent stream of that fake fog used for concerts and whatnot. I bet that they "fogged" the room we were in about once every ten minutes. It was almost like the lack of smoke was not a good thing... maybe it messed with the light show or something. Truth be told, I hated the fake fog almost as much as I dislike cigarette smoke.

When I think about the government regulating smoking something also sticks in my craw (do people still talk like that... they must, eh). Isn't it reasonable that privately-owned establishments can and should be able to make the decision to offer a non-smoking alternative without the hand of law stepping in? Couldn't free enterprise be counted on to lead such entrepreneurs in the direction which most people are flowing? I personally would never have gone inside Melitta Sundström with the intention of staying there for any length of time before the smoking ban... if this means that we don't visit the place in the winter... then in a way I think of that as voting with my feet. Perhaps someone could open a non-smoking place in hopes to draw my kind of people without being told by the governments that they MUST provide this non-smoking environment to protect my health.

I guess that while I enjoy the idea that my favorite places to go are now smoke-free... I think it should be up to the business owner. Let's be realistic, there are cigarette ads all over Berlin. The movie house shows at least one ad before the main movie cluing me in to how wonderful it is to be a Marlboro man... This was quite strange to me until I thought about it... The anti-tobacco lobby had taken care of print and video ads showing tobacco when I was still a kid. They've been working on this for years.

OK, OK... before the hate mail arrives, I am not disputing the negative impacts of smoking on the human body. I need only speak to my 74 year old Mother as she sucks on her oxygen bottle on a short but necessary break between Marlboros to see what damage can be done to the human body by smoking... But drinking is bad for me too... as is eating french fries... and coloring my hair... and driving instead of riding a bike... and chocolate... how could they continue to allow me to consume chocolate?

How long will it be before some government body takes away my pleasure in a fresh hot serving of french fries...? Oh wait, they've started that... the vegetable oil which has consistently made the best fries and fried chicken for years is now being changed slowly restaurant by restaurant as they go to a soybean-based oil which gets rid of dangerous trans-fats. Sorry, but it just doesn't taste the same.

The war on tobacco is well-funded and supported by lots of government officials that feel this is one step they can take to appease their people... but are they making these changes at the cost of more of our civil liberties being taken away... and is that really a good thing?

Now gimmie my french fries and no one gets hurt!


C N Heidelberg said...

Unless some really amazing research comes out in the future I don't think you're going to see the same regulations regarding other potentially unhealthy habits as we have seen against smoking. First of all, nothing else (in the area of Specific Bad Habit) has shown in studies even close to the same direct badness effects as smoking has. Second even if something did have as bad an effect, stuff like nutrition is even harder to measure than smoking (which already has some difficulties), so even if it existed, maybe studies would never find the true impact of it. Lastly, though it could be argued that these other unhealthy habits such as alcohol and junk foods and what have you harm others via insurance costs or suffering from the mental illness of the abuser, these effects are not as direct as those of passive smoking. The reason we could get smoking bans is by arguing that the passive smoke is harming employees of the businesses that allow smoking. Could we find a loophole like that for other unhealthy behaviors? I'm not sure.
Good post!

G in Berlin said...

I thought a great deal about your comment (and thanks for stopping by), but needed the kids to go to bed before I could give it the answer I feel is needed. First,I think that there is a difference between, say, legislating morality and personal affairs and between using government as the defener of the public weal. The reason for government is to defend the people, in my opinion, from unfettered capitalism. And I say that as a woman who was a small business owner, a Rand reader, and a great believer in personal freedoms. But the capitalist, if uncontrolled, will always strive to maximize pfofit (of course, this is in theory, leaving aside individual morality). As such, there will always be a drive to, say, pollute, because pollution is a destruction of a public good and there is no cost to such (CF Transfats, btw, fit this model. But this is already too long, so I may try to talk about this on my blog later. I enjoy reading you, always interesting.

Snooker said...

I’ve done some thinking about the comments which showed up almost immediately after posting… C. in Heidelberg has a point that smoking is much worse than the other things I’ve mentioned, and of course my thought that trans fats would be next isn’t far off… but still mostly ironic. It simply feels to me that when the ball starts rolling, then it is easier and easier to legislate what is “good” for the people.

Miss G who lives in the same lovely city as myself makes the point that the government is supposed to save the people from the nasty capitalist bastards that will take advantage of whatever they can to maximize profit (generalized I know, but this the base of what she said). What bothers me about this is that we now have something like 60 years of statistics telling us that smoking is not only harmful, but that it KILLS. If the government wants to protect its citizens, then why not STOP the sale of cigarettes? They stopped the sale of DDT… red dye number whatever… marijuana (don’t get me started on that one…) absinthe… (I think they made absinthe legal but controlled again in the States though) they make me wear a helmet on a motorcycle… and of course a seatbelt in the car… All of these laws have been enacted to ensure our personal health and well being… but what about the mighty cigarette?

WHY can’t they do something about the product which is KILLING people left and right? Money. Money that the farmers make (yup, no Congressman wants to screw the farmers out of a buck) is the most basic, then we go to the manufacturers who make a killing (heh heh) on the product (thus they can afford to pay lobbyists and effectively buy Congress), then the tax revenue for all… local, state and federal. But then there is the hidden money to be made… what about the hospitals, doctors and drug manufactures that make billions from the health care industry for taking care of the patients caused by the cancerstick?

Do you still believe that the government is really looking out for your best interests?