Meet the Spaniards fighting to stub out authoritarianism

Spanish thinkers, drinkers, smokers and non-smokers are rebelling against their government’s smoking ban. Let’s back them.

Josie Appleton

Topics World

The bars of Spain are putting up a spirited defence against the onward march of the European smoking ban.

The first public smoking ban was introduced in Ireland in 2004, progressing through Norway the same year, Italy and Sweden in 2005, Britain in 2006, Estonia and Finland in 2007, and France, Germany, Holland and Portugal in 2008. Currently, Spanish bars are pretty much the only places left in Europe where patrons can habitually enjoy a cigarette with their coffee or beer. This will change on 2 January 2011, when the government brings through a total ban that rivals the strictness of those in Ireland and the UK.

Yet it is here, in Spain, that a strong and politically astute opposition movement is building the soundest defences against the government’s plans. And it is now becoming clear just what all those European smoking bans were really about.

The Spanish ban can in no way be seen as the result of a non-smoking mood in the population. Recent surveys suggest that smoking is increasing in Spain, moving upwards from around 30 per cent of the population. Smoking is still habitual among the most frequent patrons of Spanish bars and cafes – retired men – five or six of whom can normally be found engaged in a day-long agora with the barman, which other customers join for the length of their coffee. On a recent trip from Andalucía in the south to Lleida in the north, I was able to find only one person who supported the ban: the rest, both the customers and staff of bars, were staunchly opposed.

With the economic crisis in full swing, the issue of public smoking is hardly pressing on people’s minds. All over Spain lie the skeletons of half-erected buildings – a frame without walls, or walls without a roof, or, even more poignant, streetlights for a street that never came. These are monuments to the moment when the Spanish construction bubble burst and all the bust companies downed tools. In Andalucía, olive farmers who had gone into the new ‘modern’ industry of construction have returned to their fields; many of their sons, who know only modern Spain and refuse to go back to farming, spend their days watching TV. The unemployment rate is 20 per cent. Surely there are more important questions than whether or not people smoke in bars?

The smoking ban springs from elite rather than popular concerns. It’s not because the Spanish elite doesn’t like smoking: prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was recently caught smoking on his presidential jet. Rather, the smoking ban is playing a particular political role. This is what the state can do these days: ban something. While the Spanish state may be impotent to affect the economic situation, the smoking ban is the kind of action it can take to ‘improve the public health’ and extend its authority. Greece – the other European country feeling the brunt of the economic crisis and having its economic policy dictated by commissioners in Brussels – also passed a smoking ban recently. The Greek prime minister said that the ban would ‘change people’s attitudes and behaviour, and improve their quality of life’.

What we see with the spread of smoking bans around Europe is the shift in the role of the state, from the regulation of economic life to the regulation of informal social life. The pattern for the new Eastern entrants to the EU was first to sell off their public industries, and second to bring through measures such as smoking bans in bars and cafes (even though 40 per cent or more of their populations smoked). In Spain and Greece, we see clearly that the ban is the last refuge of public policy: when the state cannot make things happen, it can at least stop people from doing things. The lifestyle ban is the thing that can be done at a stroke to change social life.

The smoking ban is one of a growing list of Spanish bans. The Basque region recently banned people from smoking in their cars if a minor is present. Several local authorities in Catalonia have brought through bans on the burqa (there may be no Muslims at all in the area, let alone burqa-wearing ones, in which case the ban is touted as a ‘preventative measure’). The Catalan parliament voted to ban bullfighting competitions in which the bull is actually killed.

In Spain, as across Europe, the smoking ban reflects the political elite’s hostility to social life. In many cases, smoking bans were brought through in open defiance of cultural practices. The instigators of the Norwegian ban sought to ‘de-normalise’ smoking as a social pastime, while many of the Eastern European countries said they wanted to ‘overturn smoking culture’. The Dutch health minister, justifying the 2008 smoking ban, said: ‘A positive side effect of the smoking ban may be that consumers who spend the whole day hanging out in coffee shops will find other things to do with their time.’ Hanging out in coffee shops is clearly not a valued activity.

The war on ‘passive smoking’ is a metaphor rather than a question of medical fact. The metaphor of passive smoking is this: one person’s enjoyment is damaging to others. Your smoke gets in their eyes, and it is the role of the state to protect one person from another. The spread of smoke through a bar is seen as a kind of poison or pollution. Ultimately, this is the pollution of social life itself. It is this kind of euro-elite mentality that has had European cities producing ‘noise maps’, with every audible aspect of social life – children shouting, a band playing, a demonstration chanting – rendered as mere ‘noise’, and a form of environmental pollution of public space. It is the officials’ job to turn down the volume of social life.

The Spanish political elite has been horse-trading over the precise remit of the smoking ban. A coalition of leftist parties wanted the ban to be extended to children’s playgrounds and school patios, as well as to the majority of football stadia. Others proposed banning smoking outside hospitals and other medical centres. The centre-right opposition (the Popular Party) negotiated for ‘smokers’ cubicles’ in bars and restaurants, where people could smoke but no food or drink would be served. Politicians are taxing their brains over the precise regulation of smoking on ‘ semi-closed spaces’, such as terraces, because – as one government representative put it – ‘a terrace is not the same in the Canaries as in Galicia’. They also want to nail down the characteristics of permitted ‘smokers’ clubs’, so as to ‘not leave room for interpretation’.

It is this desire to ‘not leave room for interpretation’ which has created the peculiar patchwork of European anti-smoking laws. In place of the different European smoking and drinking cultures – ranging from Bavarian beer tents to French street cafes to English country pubs – there is now a growing patchwork of public spaces created by the arbitrary loopholes in different smoking laws. Each elite sought to specify precisely the circumstances in which smoking was and wasn’t allowed, which has meant some absurd distinctions.

Suddenly, the exact size of bars affects what is and is not allowed. Belgium permitted smoking in bars that had ventilation and were at least 50m square; Portuguese bars under 100m square can opt to allow smoking, while in Berlin it is allowed in bars under 75m square. Cafes and bars are building outside spaces or smokers’ snugs that are specifically designed to comply with the letter of their particular law – in terms of size, degree of covering, ventilation, whether they are served by bar staff or not. And so across Europe, social spaces are being designed, not in order to reflect the custom or the wishes of their patrons, but to comply with the letter of the law. Many of the ‘accommodations’ to allow smoking are no accommodation at all, in the sense that they create sterile and asocial spaces, cut off from the rest of the bar. The apogee of this came with one German bar owner’s invention of a divider to allow smoking: the customer puts his head and hands through the divider, and puffs away with his back to the bar. Smoking is rendered a medicinal rather than social activity, which customers may as well do in the toilets.

The Spanish public seems fully aware of the real drive behind smoking bans. ‘There are more and more rules’, a barman told me in Huesca. ‘People come here for a coffee and a cigarette. Why can’t they have one? It is a question of freedom.’ Two brothers who run a bar just north of Granada were livid. ‘The government is telling us what to do. We have a no-smoking area, but most people who come in here want to smoke.’

The slogan of the Spanish anti-smoking ban movement is ‘Prohibido prohibir’ (‘Ban the Bans’, a rendering of the French 1968 slogan ‘ Il est interdit d’ interdire’ ). Liberal-minded Spanish commentators see the smoking ban as part of growing state regulation. ‘“Ban it” is all I hear now… Everything is banned’, says one writer, connecting the smoking ban with bans on letting dogs off the leash on beaches (‘even in winter when the beach is deserted’ ). Another writer, linking the smoking ban with the ban on bullfights, judges: ‘The spirit of dictatorship continues living among us, in our society and our political demagogues.’ One columnist imagined ‘a policeman behind every citizen, expressing their disapproval’, although she acknowledged: ‘They won’ t ban us from breathing because they would be left without voters.’

These new regulations jar with the long-standing independence of Spanish social life. The Spanish state has traditionally struggled to project its authority: in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when other European countries were forging democratic nation states, Spain remained under the yoke of a parasitic and archaic Castilian bureaucracy, which controlled other parts of the country only by force or bribery. By 1900, writes Gerald Brenan in his 1943 classic The Spanish Labyrinth, politicians were popularly seen as ‘a class of parasites, getting everything, giving nothing’. He judged Spain to be ‘a collection of small, mutually hostile or indifferent republics held together in a loose federation’, in which people’ s allegiance is first of all to their immediate social group, and ‘and only secondly to his country and government’ (1).

Today in Spain there remains a culture of ‘live and let live’. I have often seen Spaniards shrug at the rowdiness or general misdemeanours of their fellow citizens, events which in England would have people calling their council’s ASBO hotline like a shot. This general principle of non-interference jars with the ban-happy temper in government.

The Spanish opposition group, ‘Club of Smokers for Tolerance’ – which goes under the ‘Ban the Bans’ slogan – has two insights that are key to taking on smoking bans. First, the group makes clear that this is not about smokers versus non-smokers. As an organisation, it represents ‘Smokers and non-smokers who believe in tolerance as a fundamental principle for living together’. In an interview, a representative from the club said that the supposed ‘war’ between smokers and non-smokers only existed in the media and the politicians’ imagination. In reality, he said, the division is between ‘politicians who think it is profitable to ban things, and the people who have had enough of bans’.

The club’s second key insight is that smoking bans cannot be fought solely on the grounds of tradition. It is not enough to say that smoking is traditional – that this old man has smoked in this Irish pub for 30 years, or that the existentialists smoked in left-bank Parisian cafes. Instead, this Spanish movement takes on these modern rules in a modern way, not only looking backwards to preserve something, but looking forwards to new ways of citizens negotiating their public spaces, at a time when the majority of people do not smoke.

Before the smoking bans came in, many pubs and restaurants had set up smoking and non-smoking areas for their clients. Today this informal rule-setting remains only in people’s homes: a recent study found that over half of European homes had some form of ‘ smoking bans’. In practice, most people accommodate smokers in their homes through informal arrangement of space, saying: ‘you can smoke on the balcony/in the stairwell/by the window.’ These forms of informal rule-setting and dividing of spaces could be the basis for public space, too.

The call of the Spanish ‘Ban the Bans’ movement is for the rules to be negotiated by citizens rather than set from above by elites. If, come 2 January, Spaniards barricade their bars with cries of ‘¡No pasarán!’, libertarians of Europe should be behind them.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties campaign group. Email her {encode=”” title=”here”}.

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Topics World


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