In the weeks before Christmas, Italian politicians busily redefined what's naughty and what's nice for the country, which vices are in and which out.
A week ago, the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi proposed to drive prostitutes off the streets and indoors, where they would be able to ply their trade in the privacy of their own bordellos. A few days before, Parliament decreed in effect that smokers should be expelled into the streets from offices, trains and universities as well as restaurants and bars, unless they use specially ventilated tobacco zones.
People with old tax evasion problems, however, were permitted to run free.
In effect, Italy is entering a phase of new morality under the Berlusconi government. Smoking and prostitution seem to be popular activities, and the proposed changes are meeting resistance. Paying taxes is less popular and the outcry seems limited to opposition politicians and the ceremonial president, Carlo Ciampi.
As in the United States, the ban on indoor smoking, to take effect in 2004, was founded on the dangers of passive inhalation, in which bystanders are exposed to someone else's cancer-causing smoke. Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia estimated that one in 10 lung cancer deaths in Italy is caused by passive smoking. He is trying to augment the new anti-smoking rules with a propaganda blitz, including ads before and after televised feature films warning of the health dangers, and through school lectures. "We have a long way to go," he said.
American visitors, already accustomed to prohibitions on smoking in enclosed places, are often surprised at the open Italian habit, especially in restaurants. (Some Italians, on the other hand, observe obese Americans treading Rome's sightseeing venues and wonder why they don't give up frozen pizza.)
In any case, a cigarette at the close of a meal here is almost as de rigueur as a cup of espresso. Restaurateurs, who are being told to set aside part of their establishments for smokers, are generally up in arms. Many Italian restaurants, not to mention cafes, are holes in the wall, and separating smoking and nonsmoking areas is impractical. The owner of the posh Milanese restaurant Matarel said that he would put his place off-limits to nonsmokers. "I will put outside a nice sign, 'Exclusively for Smokers,' " said the proprietor, Marco Comini.
The proposed ban on streetwalking is officially based on protection of the practitioners. Berlusconi's cabinet reasoned that clearing the sidewalks of prostitutes would protect them from criminal exploitation. Curiously, brothels were banned 40 years ago for the same reason. Prostitution is not a crime here, although something called commercial sex "promotion" is.
Under the new measure, it would be lawful for prostitutes to rent apartments for work, and the business would be effectively legalized. According to the new rule, only one woman (or for that matter, one man) could entertain a customer therein. However, rentals would have to be approved by the building's tenants association.
One columnist satirically described future condominium meetings in which "an obsessive and prudent old lady, who prohibits children and motorcycles from the courtyard, asks the assembly to permit her to rent one of her places in the building to 'a very refined Ukrainian signorina' who will use it only to receive the 'most distinguished' clients."
Opponents of the idea noted that the cabinet made no demand for health inspections and that while prostitutes can be jailed for repeated violations, customers will only be fined. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano expressed "perplexity." Pia Covre, head of the Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes, said that the requirement to work indoors would put organized crime fully in control, because real estate will be involved. "This government is interested only in eliminating prostitutes from the streets," she said.
Prostitution in Italy has changed with the country's economic fortune. After World War II, hungry women sold themselves for food and other favors from Allied troops. As Italy prospered, the ratio of domestic prostitutes declined as foreigners took up the demand. More than a third of the country's 70,000 "sex workers" are immigrants, a recent government survey found, and of those, almost 60 percent are from Nigeria. A few years ago, Italy's Foreign Ministry broke up a visa-selling ring inside its embassy in Lagos.
Back roads in the Italian countryside are favorite meeting grounds for prostitutes and their customers. The purveyors emerge from the weeds, motorists screech to a halt, a deal is made and then they go for a ride. In Naples, a main street from the Piazza Garibaldi train station is a nightly shopping mall for sex.
Berlusconi has mentioned this brazenness in saying something must be done. A couple of years ago, he complained that he, "like many Italians," was ashamed to walk the streets with his children.
Under this measure, prostitution wouldn't be taxed. Berlusconi is also willing to give up on collecting from many people who are supposed to pay. His majority in Parliament recently proposed forgiving past tax evasion. Violators would get off by paying a small fine. The measure is supposed to bring about $8 million into state coffers.
Such forgiveness, long a staple of Italian government, was supposed to be a thing of the past following the collapse of the dominant Christian Democratic party in the early 1990s. Berlusconi, a media magnate, has been accused of tax evasion, and critics lambasted the proposal as one in a series of measures designed to protect the prime minister and his cronies. Ciampi said he won't sign such an amnesty, and the measure hangs in limbo.