After banning smoking in public places and indoor workplaces in late 2019, Austria could be seen to finally be coming into line with the majority of Europe. With so many more states banning the practice, it may seem that Europe is on track to become a smoke-free continent. However, this could not be further from the truth. Smoking seems to be the habit that Europe just can’t kick.
Europe has been exposed to tobacco since the fifteenth century. Since then, it has slowly crept into the daily lives of Europeans resulting in Europe becoming proportionally the continent that smokes the most. This long exposure has caused tobacco to become deeply entrenched in many European cultures causing two problems; hardcore smokers and unenforced, weak regulations around smoking. A long history of smoking across Europe has helped to create a group of hardcore smokers who know the risks but who refuse to quit, simply because they enjoy smoking. In Britain in 2018, only fifty eight percent of smokers interviewed by the Office of National Statistics said they were planning to give up smoking, meaning that around three million smokers in Britain have no desire to stop smoking, despite warnings to health being present on every tobacco product. In Austria, a nation dubbed ‘the ashtray of Europe’, nine hundred thousand people have signed a petition to overturn the recent indoor smoking ban, an impressive feat in a country with under nine million citizens. In Greece, seventy two percent of all licensed establishments are restaurants that allow smoking inside despite this being made illegal in 2008. Even those that are meant to be leading the anti-smoking ‘charge’ still smoke. The Deputy Health Minister of Greece, Pavlos Polakis, was famously photographed smoking indoors during a press conference in 2016 and later defended the freedom to choose to smoke online. Smoking is so culturally ingrained in Europe that recent anti-smoking efforts do not go far enough to deter current smokers.
One of the biggest causes of smoking is a socioeconomic issue that is continually given the cold shoulder - poverty. A link between poverty and smoking has been consistently proven. People living ‘paycheque to paycheque’ often view smoking as being one of the only truly consistent parts of their routine and can find cessation aids simply too expensive. In Britain, blue collar workers are two and a half times as likely to smoke than white collar workers. Scandinavian countries, which are some of the most equal nations in Europe, have some of the lowest smoking rates in Europe. Until wealth inequality is tackled, a culture of smoking will continue to exist amongst the least well off in society.
There is not an appetite amongst the people of Europe to create a smoke free generation. Nor is there a desire amongst European governments to create a smoke free generation. This is because when it is looked at from an economic standpoint, it simply does not make sense to try to reduce smoking. Across Europe, the sale of tobacco products brings in more tax than is spent on health services required to deal with smoking related health problems. In the United Kingdom, there is a six billion pound surplus annually. In poorer European nations or those in the midst of austerity, tax from tobacco products can be a lifeline when tax revenue is minimal. This economic justification is compounded by the rise of populist sentiment across Europe which is influencing political parties to roll back the state. With the high costs of running an anti-smoking campaign added to the economic benefits of a smoking society, many governments are rejecting the idea of government interference in smoker’s rights.
In Austria, the smoking ban that to some signalled the start of the end of smoking in Europe was shelved last year by the then coalition member, Freedom Party. The then Vice Chancellor and Freedom Party politician Heinz-Christian Strache, who is also a smoker, decried the ban as impeding on “freedom of choice”. It was only corruption within the Freedom Party that put the wheels in motion for Austria’s indoor smoking ban after the ‘Ibiza Affair’ caused the coalition to collapse and a caretaker government to step in and reintroduce the bill. Snap general elections late last year have led to a new coalition government, once again headed by the Freedom Party, and have most likely stopped Austria’s progress with introducing anti-smoking legislation. With smoking ingrained into European culture and there being economic benefits to a nation which smokes, it is clear to see that smoking in Europe will not stop for the foreseeable future.