Opponents of Germany's new smoking ban have appalled Jewish leaders by selling more than 1,000 "smokers' T-shirts" that display a yellow Star of David and suggest that discrimination against nicotine addicts is like Nazi anti-Semitism during the Third Reich.
The controversial T-shirts went on sale on an internet site in the run-up to a smoking ban which came in to force in 10 of Germany's 16 federal states on New Year's Day. Its promoters insisted that Germany needed to be woken up to what it described as "disgraceful discrimination against smokers" in bars and restaurants and claimed that its shirts were "the most aggressive smokers' resistance shirt available".
Photographs of the T-shirts show them displaying a yellow Star of David identical to the Judenstern, or "Jewish star", that the Nazis forced all Jews to wear in Germany after they were elected to power in 1933. The word "Jude", or "Jew", which was inscribed in the centre of the Nazi stars, is replaced by the word raucher, or smoker.
The DMP marketing agency behind the new fashion item said on its website that it had already sold more than 1,000 of the shirts, costing €19.99 (£15) each, to online customers.
But Germany's Central Council of Jews said it was appalled and disgusted by the campaign, with its vice- president branding the T-shirts "crude, brainless and tasteless". Dieter Graumann added: "Anyone who compares the plight of the Jews during the Third Reich to smokers who are thought to be discriminated against has learnt absolutely nothing."
State prosecutors in the northern town of Itzehoe, where the T-shirt agency is based, said yesterday that they had launched a formal investigation to establish whether they could prosecute. The display of Nazi symbols is banned under German law.
The offending T-shirts were being offered for sale by at least two websites yesterday, although a DMP spokesman apologised and insisted: "It was never our intention to hurt or insult anyone with these shirts."
Germany's pub smoking ban is already being widely flouted. Several bar owners in Berlin have put blackboards outside their premises jokingly warning would-be customers that going in for a drink is "life threatening" because everyone inside is still smoking.
The authorities have said that although the ban is now law, they will not start enforcing it until 1 July. After that, smokers can expect to be fined up to €100 for flouting the ban, and pub and bar owners will face fines of up to €1,000. Some states are threatening to impose fines of up to €10,000. Others, such as Berlin, allow smoking in specially appointed smoking rooms.
Opposition to the new law is widespread in Germany, where the last politicians to attempt to outlaw smoking were the Nazis. More than 30 per cent of the population still smokes. A powerful tobacco lobby ensured that it was common, until recently, to advertise comparatively cheap cigarettes by showing young adults enjoying a smoke.