Customers smoke cigarettes in a restaurant in Rome
Alessia Pierdomenico  /  Reuters
Customers smoke cigarettes in a restaurant in Rome last week. 
By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 1/4/2005 10:13:16 AM ET 2005-01-04T15:13:16

Italy is a country where lighting up a cigarette is still considered a right and not a privilege.  But this New Year’s Eve went down in the history books as the last one when champagne glasses were raised in a cloud of tobacco smoke.

Come Monday, Italy’s bars, restaurants, night clubs and even cafés will be smoke free by law. And the Minister of Health Girolamo Sirchia has said he will implement the rules rigorously.

The law was actually supposed to kick in on New Year's Eve, but Sirchia agreed that it might be too cruel to institute the ban on the big party weekend, so he allowed the 10-day reprieve. 

So far, it’s the business owners who seem to be the most upset. They fear they’ll lose customers who won’t want to linger in bars, restaurants and cafes if they have to go outside constantly to smoke.

Ironically, 86 percent of Italians who smoke say they actually support the smoking ban. Many of them feel it might help them quit, or at least cut down on their habit.  Only 10 percent of smokers feel strongly that it’s wrong.

Smoking seems like national habit
Although it can seem like everybody smokes here, less than a third of Italians are serious smokers. It just doesn’t feel like they are the minority, because the smoke is literally everywhere.  

American tourists are often shocked by the wall of smoke they have to cut through to reach the espresso counter in a café or to nab a table in a typical corner restaurant. Combined with the fact that many Italians have been raised by their mothers to have a great phobia about cold air and drafts, these smoke-filled places are often sealed up tight.

Though several politicians have criticized the ban as draconian — and one actually compared the minister’s authoritarianism to that of the Taliban — there haven’t been any moves in parliament to block the ban. Most politicians are trying to soothe their business constituents by reminding them that the ban is still not “total.”

In fact, the law allows businesses to allow smoking if they build a completely separate area for smokers that provides hermetic floor-to-ceiling enclosures and a powerful ventilation system that vents the smoke outside.  

But, most business owners have decided that it would be too expensive to comply so they are forced to implement the full prohibition.

Restaurant owners fuming
What seems to be irking business owners most is that the law forces them to become “sheriffs” and to report uncooperative clients to the police — punishing the owners with a steep $3,000 fine if they don’t.

They feel they shouldn’t have to call the cops on their clients, but the Health Minister Sirchia isn’t budging, and for good reason. Italians are notorious for only complying with civil laws if it costs them.

Wearing seat belts became law here years ago, but people didn’t start buckling up until a “points system” was introduced last year that docked drivers for not wearing them, and forced them to pay large fines.  

It will be interesting to see what kind of social repercussions the ban will bring, especially for the young people here.  

Alcohol is much more stigmatized than smoking in Italy, and most youths hardly drink it all, despite the fact that most places will serve minors without question. What kids do instead is gather in pubs and café’s often nursing soft drinks for hours, while they smoke dozens of cigarettes.  

Health authorities hope the ban will eventually make the habit unpopular but in this culture it won’t be easy.

Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Rome Bureau Chief.

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