Why the smoking ban hasn’t really worked in Greece
The Greeks are, by and large, a pretty law-abiding bunch. There’s not much visible crime, and they have a tendency to be both trusting and trustworthy. So it comes as a surprise to many when they come to Greece from the UK to see how little notice is taken of the smoking bans, motorbike helmet laws and seat-belt laws.
The root of this disregard for certain aspects of the law resides, I believe, in the Greeks’ basic distrust of politicians and the governments of which they are a part.
Tax avoidance and evasion has long been a national sport in Greece, and an ordinary small businessman, while he wouldn’t dream of stealing your money (although he’ll try to lever the best price he can) has no qualms about not parting with his hard-earned cash when the taxman comes calling. Indeed, when I owned a bar here, I became a part of a jungle-drum network of traders who, when the tax investigators descended on a bar or restaurant in the area checking for till receipts, immediately got on to the phone to all the other bars and restaurants in the neighbourhood to warn them. Local rivalry was forgotten in the face of the common enemy.
Cheating the taxman isn’t seen as criminal activity, it’s seen as the duty of every free Greek.
And therein, I believe, lies the heart of the matter. That word ‘Free’. The Greeks have a very acute understanding of freedom. As a nation, historically, they have had both long periods of supremacy and long periods of oppression, and although it is several generations past, the memory of Ottoman rule is still very much a part of the Greek psyche, a slightly raw nerve.
Greeks have a well-developed moral compass. They know the difference between right and wrong. As a nation, they are deeply religious, and their religion acts as their moral guide. But their approach to life tends towards the anarchic. They don’t respond well to rules and regulations handed down from above in a purely arbitrary fashion, particularly if they impinge on personal freedom with no appreciable benefits. They regard the whole concept of regulations designed to ‘protect people from themselves’ as an affront to their right of self-determination; an interference that holds no merit. So if they find helmets hot and uncomfortable to wear when out and about on the scooter in summer, they won’t wear one; hefty fines notwithstanding (€350, or if you pay within ten days, €175). Because ‘who the hell do these people think they are to tell me what I can and cannot do when the only person who is affected is myself?’ And I’m not talking here about rebellious young men (although there are plenty of those about), I’m talking about average people. Lawyers, shop assistants, hairdressers, office workers, ‘mumsnet’ type mums, retired people, off-duty (and sometimes on-duty) policemen. Ordinary people, who find the imposition of the helmet laws intolerable.
Likewise the smoking bans. The ‘passive smoking is dangerous’ meme will generally be greeted with snorts of derision here. Unlike the Brits and the Americans, the Greeks are not inclined to accept propaganda soundbites when their eyes tell them a different story. And with that healthy measure of scepticism informing their actions, they can see the smoking bans for what they are – arbitrary restrictions imposed at the behest of a bunch of joyless fanatics for no good reason. It is, in the local vernacular, ‘μαλακία’.
‘The Wall Street Journal’ summed it up quite succinctly in the headline to an article a couple of months ago:
And the wannabe anti-smokers in Greece aren’t helped at all by things like this:
Which is a fairly recent photo (last year, I believe) of the deputy health minister at a press conference. Indoors, I guess somewhere in the parliament building or health ministry, enjoying a no doubt well-earned smoke. He’s a surgeon, apparently.
Another little snippet:
Joining other Greeks who have ignored five smoking bans in the last decade and light up just about wherever and wherever they want, Greek lawmakers are openly smoking in Parliament in violation of the law they passed, and in the building where they did it.
A few years old, that one, but I doubt anything has changed.
And last but not least, the police don’t really have the appetite for persecuting ordinary people for doing something that they (the police) don’t really see as a problem. And Kostas the cop and Dimitris the cop and Andreas the cop enjoy going to the bar after work for a cold beer (or a hot coffee) and a cigarette, which if it’s winter, they don’t want to have to stand outside to smoke. So those guys aren’t very motivated to bust their favourite bar for smoking. They’ve got better things to do. And there are a lot of cops like Kostas, Dimitris and Andreas in the Greek police force. And a lot of them smoke. A few years ago I had reason to go to my main local police station. In the front office there were half a dozen cops lounging around three or four desks, most of them smoking. The fug was so thick (winter, so no open windows) you could barely see the large ‘NO SMOKING’ signs (several of them) on the wall behind them.
It’s a Greek thing…
[There was another great photo of some riot police on a break that I wanted to embed, but it’s a Getty Images photo from which I couldn’t remove the watermark, and I don’t want any letters from copyright lawyers, so I’ll just provide a link instead.]
So all in all, there isn’t much enthusiasm for smoking bans from any direction, apart from the small cadre of anti-smokers, who occasionally publicly wail and tear out their hair in despair at the wayward Greeks. After all, they are only trying to help them, aren’t they? But they don’t make much impact, probably because the Greek government has more important things to do with it’s limited funds than bankroll a bunch of anti-smokers, and it takes big bucks to mount an effective, saturating propaganda campaign.
Interestingly, when the MSM here reports on the lack of implementation of the ban, they are very much in line with the global press, in that they seem to be fully signed up to the idea that bans are A Good Thing, and that people ignoring bans is A Bad Thing. Yet nobody seems to take any notice of their editorial stance.
When I moved to Greece 15 or so years ago, there wasn’t any smoking ban in pubs in the UK, and so I didn’t notice any difference, despite the first smoking ban in Greece having been enacted in about 2002. I certainly didn’t even consider the Greek smoking ban when I had a bar here. There were always ashtrays on the bar and all the tables, and I had regular visits from the police, checking that I had the correct papers to operate the bar. But then, I’d usually offer them a coffee, and they would sit at the bar, and smoke a cigarette while they drank, so they weren’t about to bust me for allowing smoking, were they?
It was when I made the odd visit to the UK, post – 2007, that I realised how lucky I’d been moving to Greece. Those first couple of times back in Blighty after the ban were a real shock to the system. I went to a couple of my old local pubs, and it was as if they’d been eviscerated. None of the old regulars were there, and they were cold, lacking in atmosphere (and customers), and essentially unwelcoming. I was appalled. The last couple of times I’ve been back, I haven’t even bothered going to a pub. What’s the point? The people in them tend to be stony-faced and silent, there’s none of the hubbub and bonhomie anymore, you have to go out and stand in the pissing rain if you want a ciggy, and the beer is expensive. There’s no pleasure in that. In fact, it’s a wonder that only 17,000 or so pubs have closed since the ban. I would have expected it to be more, given how dire they are now. But maybe it was just the few pubs I went to. Maybe others are better. Dunno. It just seemed like a whole culture had been destroyed at a stroke. It’s such a shame. British pubs were brilliant back in the day, and I have many fond memories of them.
So here I am, ten years on from the UK smoking ban and fifteen years on from the first (they’ve tried several times) Greek smoking ban, and I can still go to my local bars and restaurants and be supplied with an ashtray on the table. Nobody frowns, there’s no faux coughing, no hand waving, nothing. The fact that I’m smoking at my table is unremarkable and unremarked on. Nobody even notices. There are places that are non-smoking, and that’s the choice of the owner, and there are places where people just don’t smoke, like in supermarkets (there are usually those big street ashtrays just outside the door) for instance. But in the smaller shops you will very often find the owner smoking behind the counter.
Which brings back a memory from when I was living (for about 18 months) down in the south of the Peloponnese back in the early ’90s. Back then, supermarkets were few and far between, and my German friend and I would make the occasional trip to Athens, which was about a five or six hour drive, to go to a big supermarket near the old Hellenikon airport, which stocked all sorts of exotic rarities like Cheddar cheese, curry powder, Branston pickle, Worcester sauce and many other desirable items, which were unavailable down where we were. It was a pretty big supermarket, and in the centre there was a stand-up bar with draught beer on tap, so that’s where we would debunk to while the wives trundled up and down the aisles with their trollies. There were snacks on the bar, and you could smoke there, too. It really took the stress out of shopping. It was just so….civilised.
Yes, it’s a Greek thing…