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Vesuvius, Plugged

In Italy, Public Smoking Gets the Boot

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page C01

ROME, Jan. 9 -- A cigarette and a cup of coffee are linked in Italian habits about as closely as spaghetti and tomato sauce, but at midnight Sunday, Italian police authorities were set to enforce stiff smoking bans in public indoor places, including cafes, bars and restaurants. From Monday onward, where there's smoke, there'll be fines.

The ban, passed by parliament last year and part of a wave of anti-smoking measures sweeping Europe, has set off weeks of controversy in Italy. Health advocates praise the measure as a step toward limiting tobacco addiction and lung illnesses, while smokers and some libertarians decry the emergence of a "nanny state" bent on intervening in private life. It was common to hear objectors on talk radio last week decry a "fundamentalist" influence from the United States, increasingly regarded here as the fountainhead of moralism. One caller to state-run RAI Radio Two suggested that the U.S. government ought to ban overweight people from restaurants to curb America's obesity problem.

A non-smoking sign in a Milan restaurant. Starting today, smokers such as the woman at right in a Rome ar will now have to find a special smoking room or stay at home. (Luca Bruno -- AP)

Some of the sharpest public attacks have been aimed at the feature of law that requires restaurant proprietors to rat on anybody who refuses to stop lighting up at the table or face a fine of up to $2,900. "We are being forced to become informers," says Edi Sommariva, director of Italy's restaurant and bar federation. "We will fight to have this role lifted from us."

"I don't want anyone to play sheriff," insists Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia, who promoted the legislation and has resisted calls for a delay in implementation. "Owners just have to tell their customers to put out their cigarettes."

If a cop spies a smoker in a restaurant, bar or pizzeria, the officer can fine the offender from $30 to about $300. Anyone caught smoking near pregnant women and or around children faces a penalty of up to $650.

Italy's League Against Tumors estimates that smoking causes 20 percent of all cancer deaths in the country. Smoking has long been banned in hospitals, movie theaters, railway stations, airports and public offices.

Under the new law, eateries and cafes are permitted to admit smokers to separate rooms equipped with special ventilation systems. Restaurant operators are concerned about just what kind of room meets the new standards.

"Suppose you design a room, and the inspectors come and say it is not right. Then you've wasted a lot of money for nothing," says Giuseppe Palladino, manager of the Vecchia Roma restaurant in downtown Rome.

He has decided to simply forbid smoking inside. He is not sure about open-air dining, popular in the spring, summer and fall. "We don't really know if smoking in the outdoor area is permitted. This is a problem for us. We are accustomed to pampering our customers, not telling them what to do."

Nearby at Giggetto, another venerable eating place, waiters say the restaurant operators are waiting on detailed guidance before making any interior changes. Giggetto has long maintained smoking and nonsmoking areas, but the waiters are unsure whether simple segregation will be adequate.

Besides the costs and uncertainties, the separate-room solution is impractical for many Italian food and drink places that are no more than holes in the wall. Italians can still smoke at home and in jail, the latter under a provision that permits smoking in places where someone is forced to spend time. It's against the law to create establishments reserved for smokers because it is considered discriminatory, government officials say. In effect, Italy's measure falls between Ireland's strict ban -- no smoking at all in pubs and restaurants -- and limitations imposed in France and Spain, where separate areas are set aside for smokers. Great Britain's government is considering the Irish solution.

Smoking in Italy is a popular pastime -- about one in four Italians is a regular smoker, according to surveys, and many others smoke on social occasions. As in several things Italian, smoking became a fashion statement over the years, especially in the era of La Dolce Vita of the 1950s. Men carried silver cigarette cases and women often balanced cigarettes on long holders. Teen smoking is rampant today, even though sales are by law limited to those 18 and older. Kids can purchase cigarettes at dispensing machines and avoid vendors who refuse sales to minors.

Smoking is only the latest Italian habit deemed unhealthy or unruly and marked to be tamed by law. Last year, teens were required to get licenses for the first time for driving low-horsepower motorbikes. Before that, motorcycle helmets were made mandatory. Parking on sidewalks has been banned, as has loud music late at night. So far there is no prohibition on topless bathing for women, but perhaps it's only a matter of time: Some supporters of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government are pressing for him to launch a George W. Bush-style "values" campaign as a tool to defeat the left-wing opposition in elections two years from now.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company