MADRID - Spain's smoke-filled bars, corner cafes and restaurants are on the verge of extinction after lawmakers yesterday approved a tough new anti-smoking law that will rid the country of its reputation as one of Western Europe's easiest places to light up.
The bill, proposed by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his governing Socialist Party, passed in a 189-154 vote that also rejected a Senate amendment to allow casinos to have smoking areas.
From January 2, the interiors of all bars and restaurants will be transformed into no-smoking zones, bringing Spain in line with the European Union's strictest anti-smoking nations and many US states that ban smoking in enclosed public places.
Smoker Angel Pena, lighting up a cigarette over a cup of coffee at a Madrid bar, said Spain is playing catchup to the rest of the world and will become more modern with the new law.
"We have to start being civilised," said Pena, 53.
"No one should have to put up with secondhand smoke."
The law will make Spain a tougher place to smoke than EU countries where bars and restaurants are still allowed to have smoking sections.
It will also prohibit smoking in outdoor places such as playgrounds and the grounds of schools and hospitals.
The nation's previous anti-smoking law - approved in 2006, and aimed at cracking down on smoking and smoking-related deaths - prohibited smoking in the workplace, and workers are commonly seen puffing away outside their offices.
But critics called it a failure because it allowed most bar and cafe owners to decide whether to allow smoking or not, and almost all permitted it.
Bar and cafe owners will now lose that privilege, and larger restaurants that have separate smoking sections will have to get rid of them.
Officials predict the thousands of lives that would have been lost to secondhand smoke will now be saved.
"This is a crucial step for the protection of public health," said Health Minister Leire Panjin.
"It is a necessary law that makes history."
Bar and restaurant owners failed to win an exception in the new law allowing them to construct hermetically sealed smoking sections. Hotels, however, will be allowed to set aside 30 per cent of their rooms for smokers.
Spain's main restaurant and bar association predicted the law will lead to 145,000 lost jobs and a 10 per cent decline in revenue for the sector, but the Health Ministry said similar laws in recent years for Britain, France and Italy did not badly hurt business.
Rufino Escobar, 27, smoking and sipping coffee inside a Madrid cafe, said the new law is wrong because he doesn't consider bars to be public places.
"A bar is a private business, and the owners should have the right to choose," he said.
But the waitress serving him, Elizabeth Torres, complained that she's been breathing smoke from customers for six years, and can't wait for the law to take effect.
"I don't smoke, and it's really annoying having to put up with all of the smoke from everyone else," said Torres, 33.
Smokers will still be allowed to light up on open-air terraces, which many Spanish bars have, often setting up tables and chairs on the sidewalk. Other exceptions are provided for jails, psychiatric institutions and retirement homes.
Spain's National Committee for the Prevention of Smoking says up to 1000 waiters die yearly from lung cancer, mainly from breathing in secondhand smoke.
Health officials predict more lives will be saved because many more smokers will find it tougher to find places to smoke, and will quit.
- APBy Alan Clendenning