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-Württemberg, 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.