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Schmidt faces charges for defying smoking ban

Helmut Schmidt, Germany's 89-year-old former chancellor and its most renowned and inveterate nicotine addict, became the first prominent victim of his country's new anti-smoking laws yesterday and faced the prospect of court action for lighting up in public.

Mr Schmidt and Loki, his 88-year-old wife, are well known in Germany for their chain-smoking. The ex-chancellor even has a weekly interview column in the respected Die Zeit magazine entitled "A Cigarette with Helmut Schmidt".

The couple attended a new year reception at a theatre in their home town of Hamburg only days after Germany's ban on public smoking was introduced on 1 January. As guests of honour, the Schmidts were provided with ashtrays as soon as they sat down.

Photographs of Mr and Mrs Schmidt drawing heavily on cigarettes and clearly enjoying their smoke at the theatre were plastered across the mass-circulation Bild newspaper the next day. In Germany, such a flagrant breach of the law was bound to have consequences.

Yesterday they arrived in the form of a declaration by Hamburg state prosecutors that they were investigating the Schmidts on suspicion of causing "bodily harm" to other guests at the theatre and of being in breach of the city state's ban on smoking in public places.

The case against the Schmidts was brought by the anti-smoking lobby group, Non Smoker's Initiative. Roland Keiser, the group's spokesman, said: "Their illegal behaviour was encouraged by the theatre which provided them with ashtrays despite the ban on smoking."

Helmut Schmidt's office declined to comment. The former Social Democrat chancellor is one of Germany's elder statesmen. He invariably lights up when interviewed on television.

A somewhat irritated spokesman for the Hamburg state prosecutor's office said: "Here is a prime example of the kind of thing that prosecutors have to deal with. In our country anybody can bring charges against anyone."

If convicted of causing bodily harm, the Schmidts could face a fine or a maximum five-year prison term. However, full enforcement of Hamburg's smoking ban is not due to start until February, so the Schmidts were not expected to be fined a statutory €100 (£74) for defying the new law.

The case marked the latest attempt to flout Germany's controversial and unpopular ban on smoking now at least nominally in force in 10 of the country's 16 federal states. However, as most of the states have said that they will allow pubs and restaurants a six-month grace period before enforcing the rule, the ban is being widely ignored. More than 30 per cent of Germans smoke. In Berlin, a city with a rebellious streak, some bars have rigidly enforced the rule while others have made a point of deliberately flouting it, putting up signs outside warning that to enter is "life threatening" because everyone inside is smoking.

Leaders of the Jewish community protested after pro-smoking activists produced T-shirts bearing yellow Star of David badges with the word "smoker" written across them, suggesting that the prohibition was similar to the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Opponents of the new laws have also pointed out that the Nazis were in fact the first to oppose smoking in Germany when, as part of their attempt to produce an Aryan "master race", they tried to introduce a nationwide tobacco ban.