Held up as the exemplar of Greeks’ refusal to kowtow to authority, the country’s anti-smoking laws — often flouted with abandon — could come in for renewed scrutiny this week.
Thursday is the World Health Organization (WHO)’s global ‘No-Tobacco Day’ and although smoking rates have been falling in Greece, many people — well over the EU average — remain firmly in the grip of this addictive and suicidal habit.
Despite Greece’s reams of anti-tobacco legislation, a quick stroll around cafes and bars in any Greek city or town will soon uncover carefree smokers lighting up.
Ironically, the European Commission insists on describing Greece’s anti-smoking rules as among the “strictest smoke-free provisions” in the union. Enforcement, however, is another issue.
In theory, Greece maintains a complete ban on smoking in enclosed public places, on public transport and in workplaces. Although the battle has been won in some spaces — offices, buses and metros, for example — others, such as many taxi drivers and bar managers, remain impervious to change.
It is far from just an issue of clean air or manners. The WHO says tobacco use kills more than seven million people every year and costs households and governments over $1.4 trillion through healthcare expenditure and lost productivity.
“Tobacco threatens us all,” says WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan. “Tobacco exacerbates poverty, reduces economic productivity, contributes to poor household food choices, and pollutes indoor air.”
Cigarettes particularly contribute to Greece’s waste problems, with campaigners saying up to 10 billion of the 15 billion cigarette butts produced by smokers around the world every day end up tossed into the environment.
Old habits die hard
In Greece, however, old habits die hard. In March, an embarrassing photo emerged of Transport Minister Christos Spirtzis smoking indoors during an event in Thessaly as his government was supposedly trying to enforce the widely-flouted anti-tobacco laws.
It was not the first time a Greek minister had been caught breaking one of their own anti-smoking laws. In 2016, Alternate Minister of Health Pavlos Polakis was photographed smoking during a news conference in his own ministry.
Google has immortalized this gaffe, as an online search for ‘Greek health ministry’ throws up the infamous Polakis photo as its first result.
Former Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas was another political figure caught red-handed smoking at public meetings.
With performances like this, it was unlikely that Greece would figure among the WHO’s award-winning European anti-tobacco campaigners, who this year included individuals and groups from the U.K., Belgium and Ukraine.
There are sporadic efforts to breathe life into Europe’s “strictest” anti-smoking rules. In January this year, Health Minister Andreas Xanthos called on the authorities to enforce the law, and start strict checks on enclosed places where smoking was being allowed.
In theory, smokers in enclosed public places are to be fined between €50 and €500 ($58-$580) with business owners facing heftier charges, including the loss of their trading license in the case of repeat offenders.
But enforcement has been patchy, with some Greeks insisting on a supposed right to smoke indoors, regardless of whether other customers, staff or children want to endure it.
However, in the West the anti-smoking message — accompanied by cast-iron scientific proof of tobacco’s deadly effects — has been largely driven home. New York, to take one example, is now particularly unwelcoming for smokers.
Many Greeks have heard this message too and decided to quit. A January 2018 survey by pollsters KAPA Research revealed that over that last five years 27.1 percent of the population said they were smokers compared to 36.7 percent in 2012.
Speaking to Greek Reporter in January this year, Prof. Panagiotis Behrakis, director of the Public Health Institute at the American College of Greece and head of Smoke Free Greece, said there had been a “cultural shift” in attitudes to smoking.
“It is very positive that three-in-four Greeks express anger at non-compliance with the anti-smoking laws and that 82 percent believe smoking downgrades our culture,” he said.
However, change from the top seems not to be forthcoming.
“There is no political will to enforce anti-smoking laws there,” Behrakis said. “Images of ministers and other officials smoking in public places send the wrong message and also show there is a lack of political will to enforce the law.”
No-Tobacco Day will come and go. Whether the Greek authorities decide to enforce their own laws and help the thousands of their fellow citizens trying to quit the deadly habit remains to be seen.