Tuesday, 12 October 2010

EU smoking ban in the works for next year

They've made tenuous moves in the past, but this time it looks like they're serious. Yesterday EU health chief John Dalli told a German newspaper that the European Commission will make a push to ban smoking in all public places, transport and workspaces throughout the EU next year. It is an ambitious idea considering that the status of smoking in public places currently varies widely across the union, and even the United States has been unable or unwilling to try to put in place a federal smoking ban.

Last year the European Commission took a rather half-hearted stand on public smoking, merely encouraging member states to adopt their own smoking bans by 2012. But since then a new commission has come to power and the new health commissioner appears to be more aggressive on the issue than his predecessor. He wants to propose new legislation next year to reduce the amount of nicotine used in cigarettes, make shopkeepers keep cigarettes out of view from customers and enforce new labelling requirements on cigarette packs. He also told the newspaper that he wants to push for an EU-wide smoking ban.

  Smoking Bans as of February 2010      no restrictions      no national ban, some localities have indoor bans      national ban in public indoor areas, but not in bars or weak enforcement      strong national ban in all public indoor areas with exceptions      strong national ban in all public indoor areas

The EU currently has a patchwork of member state rules regarding smoking in public places. Here in Belgium, smoking is banned in restaurants but is allowed in bars that don't serve food. In the surrounding countries of France, Britain and the Netherlands smoking is completely banned in all indoor public places (however in France bars are allowed to set up special enclosed indoor smoking areas – and these are notoriously gross). In Germany smoking bans vary by federal state. Certain states such as Baden-W├╝rttemberg, Lower Saxony and Hesse have complete bans. Other states have no ban at all. And others have enacted bans with exceptions for "private clubs," prompting all bars to immediately reclassify themselves in such a way. So you can still smoke in a bar in cities like Munich or Berlin. In Spain they passed a national smoking ban but in fact they now have a defacto regional policy like Germany's because some autonomous communities such as Madrid and Valencia are boycotting the law. Other countries like Greece have passed smoking bans but the law is being almost completely ignored nationwide. Looking at the map above, it's interesting to note how much the situation has changed in just a few years.

The patchwork situation is much the same in the United States, where smoking bans have come into effect at either the city or state level. The US congress has never even attempted to enact a nationwide smoking ban. Laws on smoking vary remarkably from state to state, ranging from total smoking bans (even outdoors), to no regulation of smoking at all. Cities and states in the Northeast and the West Coast have the strictest and oldest bans (New York City was one of the first municipalities to adopt a ban in 2003). States in the South and Midwest tend to have no bans or very unrestrictive bans. In the map on the left (from Wikipedia), the white states have full smoking bans while the grey states have no ban. The rest have different combinations of workplace/restaurant/bar bans.

Interestingly, while smoking bans have tended to follow this geographic/cultural pattern in the United States, they have not done so in Europe. European smoking bans have not fallen along the typical Germanic/Latin or East/West divides.

For European federalists, it would be impressive if the EU were able to enact a union-wide social/health law that the United States has never even attempted to enact federally. But for Eurosceptics, such a move will surely be seen as an inexcusable intrusion not only on member state sovereignty but on people's individual civil liberties. There will likely be those within the commission who will make the argument that such a law is unnecessary when the member states seem to be going in that direction on their own on a national level. Why give the Eurosceptic press further ammunition for accusations of EU overreach?

Then again, there will likely be those within the health department who will argue that many of these national bans are not working because they are not being enforced or they are being drafted inappropriately allowing loopholes to be exploited. A European directive, they will argue, will force the member states to adopt national bans in a consistent and ironclad way – and they will be forced to do proper enforcement or risk being taken to the European Court of Justice for infringement of the directive.

Of course right now the idea just consists of words from the health commissioner, and such a proposal will have a long way to go within the commission before it is proposed next year. By that point Dalli's aggressive original idea could have been watered down to the point where it is as weak as last year's initiative. But if Dalli does have the support of the other commissioners on this, it could be an interesting debate to watch next year. Even if he can get the other commissioners on board, such legislation would also have to be approved by member states and the European Parliament. It is not immediately clear how either institution would react to such an idea.


Eurocentric said...

It's good to see that the Commission - or at least the health Commissioner - wants to be tough on smoking, but I don't think that the EU can introduce a smoking ban. From the health policy page it looks like the Commission is considering introducing/strengthening legislation on cigarette contents and labelling. However, I don't think the EU has the competence to bring in a smoking ban as it can't harmonise health laws - only use health as a factor in drafting single market laws.

Dalli used strong words of support for smoking bans and expressed a wish for more European convergence, but my reading of the Die Welt article is that it was a separate comment from the legislative proposals announcement.

Gulf Stream Blues said...

It would certainly be a trickly legal area for the EU. My understanding in talking to some legal types about this is that it would be possible for the EU to introduce such a directive if it related to workplace safety, ie mandating that member states make sure that workers in bars/restaurants are not exposed to second hand smoke but leaving them free to devise how to do that. This is done with workers' rights and worker safety in other areas, so it seems feasable to do with exposure to second-hand smoke. Of course, the jury is still out on just how damaging second hand smoke really is.

Captain Eurotrash said...

"For European federalists, it would be impressive if the EU were able to enact a union-wide social/health law that the United States has never even attempted to enact federally"

Impressive, maybe, but desirable or necessary? Not in my (federalist) eyes. There seems to be a misconception that federalists want as much as possible to happen at the federal level (I know you didn't write that, I mean in general), when in fact we want mostly the opposite. It's the federal structure we want, instead of ad-hoc intergovernmentalism. What the federal state should or shouldn't do is a separate issue.

There's this tension in Europe between the "federal" level of government and everyone else. The commission and parliament think they have to always be doing something to remind people that they're there. Otherwise, people might forget and they'll disappear. Or they'll remember and say "well, you're not really doing anything useful so we don't need you anymore". So, once in a while, they come up with something like this just so they won't disappear.

The US doesn't have this issue. There may be tension between federal government and states' rights, but everyone accepts the federal structure as the framework by which they're governed. So the US Congress doesn't have to remind people they're there, people know they're there. And they leave to the states what is naturally their competence, such as smoking bans.

As a related side note, I followed the healthcare debacle in the US with a bit of bemusement because it seemed like exactly the wrong thing to handle at a federal level and I can't help but think that the outcome would have been much less mediocre had it been handles by individual states. I don't know what to make of the fact that no states have actually implemented (European style universal) healthcare though. Maybe it's just that they don't want it or maybe it's that people instinctively look to the federal government to solve a fundamental problem like healthcare.

Anonymous said...

You are a bunch of dictators. We are free men and women, go take your dictatorial measures to a Communist country and leave our democracies alone.

Bunch of bloody hitlers!