Spain: the people’s war to stub out conformism

Pinning rebellious tracts to their doors and daring the police to arrest them: behold Spanish bar-owners’ ‘insubmission’ to the smoking ban.

As in 1936, a battle is playing out in Spain that resounds beyond her borders.

On one side are the government and health establishment, who on 2 January introduced one of the strictest smoking bans in Europe, prohibiting smoking not only in enclosed public spaces but also in the vicinity of schools, hospitals and in children’s playgrounds.

On the other side are furious bar owners who are ignoring or evading the law, with some stepping forward in outright rebellion and posting ‘you can smoke here’ signs or calling public demonstrations.

In this battle it is crystal clear what is at stake in smoking bans, and what the different sides represent. This is not a conflict between smokers and non-smokers, but between those who are for the bureaucratic regulation of social life and those who are for tolerance and liberty.

The Spanish pro-ban movement is defined not by its dedication to health or even non-smoking (prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero himself is a smoker). Rather, its defining feature is a conformist mentality: an emphasis on following the rules, obeying to a minute degree official proscription for the regulation of social life.

Pro-ban lobby groups and sections of the Spanish media have busied themselves interpreting the absurd dos and don’ts of the new law. One article lamented that it was not clear exactly how far you had to walk from a hospital entrance in order not to fall foul of the law. Another sought to allay the ‘many doubts’ about the remit of the new law and provide its readers with guidelines for action. Yes, says the article, you may smoke in sports stadia, on beaches and at bus shelters, even if there are children present. But no, you may not smoke in children’s play areas (signs will say exactly where the play area begins and ends) or in an outside terrace if it is bounded by more than two walls .

Yet this Murcia newspaper was unable to get answers from the Health Ministry as to whether people could smoke in the entrance to two particular local bus and train stations, which are semi-covered. Are they ‘open air’ or not? The conformist’s objection is that the law is not so sufficiently defined as to provide a guide for conduct in every possible situation.

As we have seen in other European countries, smokers can be conformists on this question just as much as non-smokers. The Spanish prime minister hopes that the smoking ban will help him give up, a declaration of weak will that is somewhat concerning coming from a head of state. Other Spanish smokers have said that the ban provides an incentive for them to quit or to be healthier. A Spanish consumer group called for people to report bars that are failing to comply with the ban, in what one paper describes as an attempt to ‘create a country of informers’. Some did turn into informers: the consumer group received over 1,000 reports by 4 January. And some bar owners were conformist, too, pleading with their patrons to ‘help us comply’ with the new law, and providing heaters or even coats to make smokers’ outdoor vigils easier to bear.

By contrast, the anti-ban movement is defined not by its celebration of smoking, but by its libertarianism. The movement’s slogan is ‘Ban the bans: Smokers and non-smokers for tolerance’.

This message has been communicated with an explicitness verging on the didactic. The poster for an anti-ban demonstration in Barcelona on 14 January opined: ‘Defend your rights, defend your freedom, defend the tolerant democratic society, we have the right to choose, we are free to choose, the state has no right to take our freedom of choice away…’ And so on.

As time goes on, the anti-ban rebels seem to gain in strength and numbers. One of the first rebels was the bar Espirit in Castellón, whose owner Fernando Tejedor posted signs declaring that ‘smoking is permitted’ and who defended his ‘freedom to choose on my own premises’. The owner of a Marbella restaurant penned a veritable tract in which he said that the smoking ban was a ‘smokescreen to cover seven years of massive destruction in Spain’: ‘We inform you that as a private business we are making use of our rights as we understand them and the law will not be applied in our establishment.’ The head of a bar in Castilla y Leon, Manuel Rodríguez, declared himself a ‘non-conformist and against the anti-tobacco law’ and called a public demonstration for the ‘right to choose freely’. (10)

Bars are becoming political battlegrounds. When police visited the rebel Marbella bar and reported the clients who were smoking, the owner launched a broadside against the officers. Bars are starting to form into political associations, sensing that there is strength in numbers and that if there are enough rebels then the law will be unenforceable. In one area of Madrid, a group of bar owners formed what was, in effect, a rebels’ syndicate, pledging that they will all do ‘as much as possible to ensure that you can smoke in their businesses’.

Rodrigo Arroyo, owner of the bar-restaurant Rodrigo in Valencia, urged other establishments to follow his ‘insubmission’, saying that ‘if we all do the same then nothing will happen’. The president of a Canaries leisure federation urged the normally sleepy region to rebellion, saying ‘let’s see if the government has the nerve… to punish 18,000 establishments’. Such open conflict over the ban is unusual. In other places – Greece, Bulgaria, certain parts of France – smoking bans have been ignored but rarely have they been fought or so openly defied. Rarely have bar owners pinned rebellious tracts to their doors, like Luther.

The reason for this (as I have argued before on spiked) is the relative weakness of the Spanish state, and the independence and ‘live and let live’ temper of Spanish society. In addition, it is likely that two particular constituencies explain this rebellion. First, there are the elderly men, many of whom smoke, who spend large portions of their days in bars (these men have no real place in the home and have lost their place in the workplace, so spend their very pleasant retirements essentially hanging out in public). The second constituency is a high-spirited young generation, who also smoke, a generation that parties till dawn and has little time for authorities of any kind. So although only 30 per cent of the Spanish population smokes, the proportion of bar-goers who smoke is much higher. Several Spanish bar owners have told me that around 80 per cent of their clients are smokers.

Added to this is the fact that Spanish bar owners are mainly small proprietors, who run their own place as they please; their customers are not just a source of income but are also their friends. They object to ‘having to be the police in your own bar’. It is the mentality of the independent self-ruling proprietor that has led some establishments effectively to declare independence and inform municipal authorities that they are not a restaurant but a ‘private gastronomic association’, and therefore independent of the law.

A UK Daily Mail travel blog reported the Spanish smoking ban with a cheer: ‘At last, Spain emerges from the dark ages.’ No sir – on this question at least, it is Spain that was enlightened and the rest of the West that entered the tunnel of ignorance and superstition. Citizens in the US, Australia and most of Europe have become accustomed to a micro-regulation of smoking behaviour that is petty and verging on vindictive. Smoking has been banned not only in closed spaces, but in outdoor spaces, too, including university campuses, beaches, parks, football grounds, even cemeteries. Yellow lines outside British train stations indicate the exact point at which smoking is permitted; ‘smoking areas’ are marked out with cones and tape. One Greek student was astonished to be told outside a Scottish pub that he could smoke on one side of a line, and drink on the other, an absurdity he mocked by straddling the line, drink in one hand and cigarette in the other.

As a libertarian non-smoker, I would prefer to live in a free society than one in which my personal preference is imposed by diktat. If left to free choice, it is likely that the result would be a mix of smoking and non-smoking establishments, and smoking and non-smoking rooms, in the same way as bars play different music or have different dress codes. A vegetarian restaurant would have one rule and a heavy metal hangout would have another.

Meanwhile, everyday disputes – such as somebody smoking next to you on a park bench – would be resolved in the same way as disputes over somebody playing their music too loud or having an annoying phone conversation. You have three choices: let it go (it is their bench, too); move to another bench; or politely ask them to stop.

‘But I can’t ask them to stop smoking!’ is a familiar refrain from many supporters of smoking bans. Why the hell not? It is this retreat from negotiating everyday relationships that has handed the authorities carte blanche to adjudicate all matters of etiquette and taste. Freedom of choice is the burden of adult citizenship, and assuming this burden would more than payback in terms of the greater vibrancy of public spaces and the greater honesty of dealings among citizens. For now, I am with Fernando Tejedor of the Espirit bar, Castellón: the side not of the dark ages but of enlightenment.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties campaign group. Email her .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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