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Dutch bars hit hard by smoking ban, economy

Hunkered down in a thick winter coat and scarf, Steven Jankipersadsing lit up a cigarette after finishing his bowl of pea soup outside a Dutch cafe.
A 'no smoking' sign is seen in an empty bar in central Amsterdam, Netherlands, on July 1.Dusan Vranic / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hunkered down in a thick winter coat and scarf, Steven Jankipersadsing lit up a cigarette after finishing his bowl of pea soup outside a Dutch cafe.

"I won't come here in the winter, I don't want to sit outside then," he said between puffs Wednesday, sitting under a gas heater that took the edge off the autumn chill in front of the Brasserie Het Wapen.

He is not the only Dutch smoker deciding to stay home. Bars and cafes in the Netherlands are seeing revenues slump after the government introduced a smoking ban in July, shortly before the credit crisis took hold.

The double whammy is costing bars as much as 30 percent of their business, said Joris Prinssen of Royal Horeca Netherlands, a lobbying group representing 20,000 bar and restaurant owners.

Other countries, too, have been hit by the coinciding smoking bans and economic malaise.

Gerard Laloi, who heads a group that represents France's bar owners, said beer sales fell 12 percent in the first nine months of the year compared with the same period last year. France banned smoking in bars and restaurants on Jan. 1.

Laloi blames the decline on the smoking ban, as well as on the general economic downturn.

Danish bar owners also report income down some 30 percent.

Even Germany's legendary thirst for beer has been hit — although to a lesser extent. Its statistics agency cited smoking bans along with price increases and a faltering economy as reasons for a 1.7 percent decline in beer sales for the first six months of the year — though that still amounted to a whopping 11 billion pints.

In August, the Dutch brewer Heineken reported its sales in Western Europe fell 1.3 percent in the first half of the year compared to the same period in 2007, assigning partial blame to the smoking bans.

Ignoring the ban
Some Dutch cafe owners have taken to putting the ash trays back on tables just to survive, said Prinssen, citing reports from members.

Amid such open barroom rebellion, Health Minister Ab Klink wrote to Parliament this week to say the government would begin cracking down harder on establishments flouting the ban.

"Let there be no misunderstanding," he wrote. "In this country, laws have to be respected and that applies to everybody."

Prinssen said 1,500-3,000 mainly small family-run cafes could go out of business if they refuse to let customers smoke.

Bars and pubs elsewhere in Europe have adapted by providing sealed smoking rooms and heated outdoor terraces.

But Andre Coli, who runs the Wapen Van Voorburg bar next to the brasserie, says setting aside a sealed smokers' room hasn't helped his business.

"My income is down by 20-25 percent. It's a scandal," he said, smoking a cigarette at the same sidewalk table as Jankipersadsing.

Out in the cold
The cafe owners' group is lobbying the government to either enforce the ban better or scrap it. It says bars that are flouting the ban are drawing smokers away from law-abiding establishments.

"The minister is leaving bar owners out in the cold," the group's director, Lodewijk Van der Grinten, said Tuesday after meeting with Klink.

In Israel and Cyprus smoking bans also are regularly flouted.

In Israel, revelers who light up in bars and clubs usually are shunted off to the bar or a corner of the room — though sometimes next to diners.

Police in Cyprus are fighting a losing battle because fines for ignoring bans are so low, less than $44. They issued about 1,100 fines in the first eight months of the year.

The Dutch government issued warnings until Oct. 1 and since then has handed out 500 fines that range from $380 to $3,000.

The European Commission estimates that nearly 80,000 people die each year in the 27-nation bloc from inhaling other people's tobacco.