It's cool, it's cheap - but can Germany kick the habit?

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The Independent Online
You never know what you may pick up in a German hospital. A friend who had given up smoking before a recent operation re-emerged from the ward two weeks later with a cigarette in her mouth. "There was a vending machine on every floor, and a smoking lounge at the end of the corridor," she explained. "What was I to do?"

Despite the German obsession with health, cleanliness and the environment, there cannot be many other places on Earth where it is so difficult to kick the filthy habit. Germany is the last outpost of Marlboro country; the only place in the West, with the exception of Portugal, where more cigarettes are lit up today than 20 years ago.

Fags are cool, cheap and available everywhere. No pub-goer should be seen without one. It is every German's inalienable right to light up wherever he or she fancies.

But now all this may change. After 20 years of intense discussions, members of the Bundestag will be called on to vote today on a proposal to banish smoking from public buildings, work-places, trains, buses and aeroplanes. It has taken them four years to agree on the wording of the new "non-smokers' protection bill".

If the law is passed, employers, restaurants and pubs will have to set aside non-smoking zones. Offenders would be liable to a fine of 100 German marks, whilst companies which do not enforce the ban would have to pay DM5,000.

There is no question of hanging out verboten signs in German parks California- style. The Greens' timid suggestion to thin out the ubiquitous cigarette- machines, especially in the vicinity of schools, is heading for defeat.

Yet even this modest revolution, agreed by the main parties of government and opposition, may well be stubbed out. MPs have a free vote, and most of them happen to be smokers.

The government, headed by pipe-smoking Helmut Kohl, is unswayed by the argument that non-smokers should be shielded by the law. As the health minister, Horst Seehofer, an occasional smoker, has declared: "Persuasion is better than a ban."

On the opposition benches, too, the "persuaders" rule the roost. Most Social Democrat leaders enjoy the odd puff. Gerhard Schroder, who represents the greatest threat to Chancellor Kohl's re-election prospects, sports his giant cigar as an emblem of virility.

The tobacco lobby has conducted an energetic campaign, arguing that a curtailment of cigarette consumption would hit tax-payers.

Excise duties add up to more than DM20bn every year. The tobacco companies have calculated that, if every existing smoker could be persuaded to go up to two packets a day, the income would take care of Germany's defence budget.

Lack of public commitment to health campaigns is one reason why many Germans do not seem to be worried about the risks of smoking. That and the burden of history.

As the tobacco industry's public relations people keep pointing out, Hitler was the last person to try cleansing Germany of the habit, and look where it got him. Even his girlfriend, Eva Braun, would sneak out of the the bunker for a quick drag in the dying days of the war, and then cover up her guilt by consuming copious amounts of mints. Adolf, apparently, never found out.

- Imre Karacs, Bonn