BONN -- Smokers are at war with nonsmokers here, just as in the United States. The battle's heating up, just as in the United States.
But on the German front in the tobacco wars, the other guys are winning.
In Cologne, when a department store clerk complained about having to share a small office with a heavy smoker, she was asked to sign a paper declaring herself willing to live with existing conditions. When she refused, she was sacked.
German courts have prevented some restaurants from setting up nonsmoking sections, on the grounds that doing so would infringe on the rights of smokers to sit anywhere they choose.
And now, the German airline, Lufthansa, has suddenly snuffed out its previously announced plan to ban smoking on all domestic flights beginning Oct. 28.
The reason: "We feared trouble on board," said Lufthansa spokesman Peter Hoebel. "There was so much pressure in the last couple of days from the smokers' lobby that we thought there could be confrontations. Our stewards and stewardesses are not policemen."
The longest domestic flight in Germany takes barely more than an hour. "You'd think that wouldn't be a great hardship," Hoebel said. "But there's a German mentality that does not like the idea of an airline telling them they can't do something."
Health consciousness is rather different here. When you are seated at German restaurants, you are customarily provided a basket of bread and a tub of lard; Germans slather it on with abandon. No meal is complete without a slab of meat. Even hospital waiting rooms are shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
On a visit to Washington some months back, German Environment Minister Klaus Toepfer said he was shocked to look out his window at the Watergate Hotel to see throngs of people jogging and riding bicycles early in the morning. "That would never happen in Germany," he said.
In a country where cigarette sales continue to increase (they're dropping about 3 percent a year in the United States), the reaction to Lufthansa's planned ban was fierce.
"Fact is, no one knows what really triggers cancer," editorialized Bild, the country's most popular newspaper, after the airline announced the ban. "Only Lufthansa knows 100 percent."
The paper -- with a circulation of 5.5 million, the largest in the Western world -- called for a boycott and hammered the airline with story after story with headlines like "Lufthansa Threatens to Put Smokers in Chains."
The First Smokers Lobby, a pro-smoking group, led the boycott movement. "Intolerant Lufthansa's hypocrisy knows no limits," said Smokers Lobby Director Heinz Browers. "It would ban smoking for passengers, but not for pilots in the cockpit."
Lufthansa appealed to the government, hoping that the health ministry would at least make a statement commending the idea of a ban. Nothing doing.
Although Lufthansa is Germany's only domestic airline, it caved in to the threatened boycott.
Browers, who earlier this year urged German smokers to vastly increase their cigarette consumption to boost tax receipts and so help pay for German unification, hailed the airline's surrender as a victory for smokers.
"They know who their customers are," he said proudly.
"The public and Bild put too much pressure on us," Hoebel said. "Public opinion isn't as far along as in the U.S. That's what we had to learn. Maybe in a few years."