Tapas bar attempts to smoke out support for ban on cigarettes

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A Spanish bar owner torn between declaring his haunt for drinks and tapas a non-smoking haven, or keeping it wreathed in fug when anti-smoking legislation comes into force at the end of the month, has asked his clients to decide for him.

Pamplona's bustling Chez Evaristo is on one of the most internationally famous streets in Spain, Estafeta, the central stretch of July's annual bull run, when the city is besieged by visitors from all over the world. The bar serves succulent tapas - known in Navarra as pinchos - during the day to clients including families with children who prefer a clean atmosphere; while in the evening and into the early hours couples and groups of friends pile in to drink, chat ... and light up.

Spain's law banning smoking in public places is an astonishing achievement for a nation that has championed tobacco smoking for 500 years, and where until very recently almost everyone smoked, everywhere. The law says establishments smaller than 100 sq metres can decide for themselves whether to ban smokers or not. Chez Evaristo is 80 sq metres and employs nine staff.

The owner, Jose Luis Biurrun, 68, knew that whatever he decided he risked alienating regulars, discouraging newcomers and faced the prospect of constant arguments. So he opted to consult the democratic will of the people on whether he should ban smokers after 1 January. Mr Biurrin's pragmatic, populist solution to a knotty problem has touched a chord nationwide, and inspired similar bar ballots throughout Spain.

"I figured it should be for the clients to decide if they wanted their bar smoking or non-smoking," Mr Biurrin said. "Everyone thought it was a great idea." He put a ballot box near the entrance to Chez Evaristo three weeks ago, with an explanatory poster that asks: "How do you want your bar? Help us decide between smokers or non-smokers." Four thousand votes have already been cast, filling nearly three ballot boxes.

Votes are to be counted on 22 December in the presence of a lawyer, Mr Biurrin says, and he promises the result will be binding. Everyone attending the count will be offered a complementary glass of cava and a tapa, he adds, with an eye to a spot of pre-Christmas promotion.

Mr Biurrin hopes the majority will vote to ban smoking: he says he loves children and doesn't want to see them banished from his doors by bad air.

But he fears the smokers will win the day, judging by comments he hears at the bar. "That will mean I'll lose 35 per cent of my customers."