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article imageAustria mulls pro-smoking bill despite protests

By AFP     Feb 28, 2018 in Health

Austrian government MPs presented a bill on Wednesday which would continue to allow smoking in bars and restaurants, despite a huge groundswell of opposition.

The bill, which would overturn a ban due to come into force on May 1, was branded a "huge step backwards for public health" by the opposition.

The far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) insisted on the ban being dropped as a condition of entering government with the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz after elections last year.

A petition to keep the planned ban launched by Austria's medical association has now been signed by 420,000 people -- almost five percent of Austria's population.

Several prominent figures within Kurz's own party, including former leader Reinhold Mitterlehner, have expressed their opposition to the ban being repealed. The OeVP supported the ban under the last government.

But Kurz, despite being a non-smoker and having supported the law under the previous government, says he is bound by his coalition agreement with the FPOe.

FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache has defended his opposition to the ban, saying it infringes on "freedom of choice" and saying the new plan would protect "smokers, non-smokers and restaurant owners", whose businesses he says would be hit by a ban.

On Wednesday the restaurant and bar owners' association welcomed the reversal of the ban as "appropriate and proportionate", saying it left the decision in the hands of owners and customers.

The opposition Social Democrat Party (SPOe) had asked health minister Beate Hartinger-Klein to explain how the bill is compatible with Austria's commitments to the World Health Organization.

"Is the coalition agreement with the FPOe really worth putting Austrians' health at risk?" asked the SPOe's ex-health minister Pamela Rendi Wagner.

Hartinger-Klein responded to the criticisms by calling the ban "horrible" and saying "it banned business owners from offering hospitality".

Under current law smokers in bars and restaurants have to be seated in a separate area -- although this is not always rigidly implemented.

But no separate area is necessary in establishments smaller than 50 square metres (540 square feet) if the owner is happy to allow smoking on the premises.

Some 13,000 people die of tobacco-related causes in Austria each year. The country has the third-highest proportion of smokers in the EU (30 percent of those over 15), according to Eurostat.

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