Berlin Bleeds Your Lungs

Coming home in the wee hours from a bar in London, Madrid or New York, you might have reason to burn your clothes, but not because they reek of cigarette smoke.

Berlin is routinely called a ‘smokers’ paradise’  because you can light up anywhere you want in a bar. This astonishes my friends arriving from other big cities all around the world: even many of my smoker friends, taught abroad to defer to the needs of the non-puffing, are surprised.

This is because smoking bans are now the norm. Some are strict: in Vancouver, Canada, there’s a 3 metre buffer of non-smoking outdoors, in front of workplace doorways and windows.  Some countries are surprisingly compliant: for almost a decade, you’ve not been able to smoke in Italian bars––friends joked that Italians did it to reduce their drycleaning costs, so they can wear their Armani suit both to the bar and to work the next day. Some are socially expedient: you always know which bars are popular in New York City, and what the crowd’s like inside,  from the gaggle of smokers congregated out front. Some bans of course don’t work: in Greece, bars just put the ashtrays away if the police show up and everyone smiles through the fumes. But in all the biggest European countries––Britain, Spain, France, and even increasingly in Russia where 70% of men smoke––and in the majority of other European countries, if you light up in a bar you are likely to be kicked out or get fined. This means that only 28% of Europeans were exposed to second-hand smoke in 2011. Ask a Berliner when the last time was (s)he  inhaled someone else’s second-hand draught (answer: last night), and whether it would be possible to go a whole year without doing so (answer: no, it would ruin my social life––I wouldn’t be able to go out anymore).

Germany is thus the only large European country that does not have a comprehensive federal smoking ban, all this in a country where 9 out of 10 lung cancer patients were smokers and the smoking-related burden for German health care costs tops out to an astonishing 16.6 billion euros a year. A more conservative estimate puts the price-tag at ‘only’ around 20 billion a year for the EU as a whole, with almost a million people dying annually from smoking-related illness: the BBC pointed out this week that’s a city the size of Palermo or Frankfurt. Hello, public health emergency.

In Germany, there’s plenty of resistance against smoking bans, especially since Hitler tried to push one through. There are even t-shirts around with smokers claiming they are being persecuted by anti-smoking neo-Nazi legislators. But this argument of individual freedom doesn’t really take into account the collective tax burden and the rights of workers like barmen/women to a safe workplace. Indeed, some say the essential struggle is between workers’ rights and the economic interests of bar owners who care only about profits dropping if a ban comes into effect.

Legislation in Germany is dependent on the States: Bavaria leads the way with smoking banned in bars and stiff fines. In the capital, however, there was briefly in 2007 a comprehensive smoking ban (for a short while it held), but it was soon revised and put on the backburner. Officially bars under 75 m2 can allow smoking––designating themselves as Smokers’ Bars, with under-18s not allowed–– and bigger bars can allow smoking in a separate room.

None of this is properly enforced here, and the ‘separate room’ is often simply the back of the bar. The same goes for nightclubs which are also suppose to have separate areas. The mayor of Neukölln famously said that we simply wouldn’t enforce a ban, because there was not the manpower to do so. And plenty of people in other districts feel a little funny sending a letter to the Ordnungsamt to complain.

The solution for Berliners wanting to avoid smoke is to go where food is served. You can pretty much be guaranteed that where there’s food, there’s no ash, due to a functioning ban in restaurants. That is unless you are sitting outside, sharing a bench as you eat brunch, and the person next to you holds up a cigarette to your ear.

So where is this going? It might be the EU that finally introduces a ban across Europe (this was floated in 2010, although not in an implementation report this year, despite the fact that 61% of Europeans favour such a ban in bars). Last week Members of the European Parliament debated banning certain tobacco products––such as e-cigarettes, snuff and menthol cigarettes—but the discussions are not about an outright smoking ban. Meanwhile, the air certainly doesn’t seem to be clearing on Oranienstraße, from which one returns at the end of the night with red eyes, sore throat, wheezy chest, bad skin, and wanting a lung brush. All this combined with the feeling that one didn’t do anything to deserve this except stand in a space shared with others.

Then again, I wouldn’t want anyone to feel persecuted.



Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

19 thoughts on “Berlin Bleeds Your Lungs

  • 22/02/2014 at 23:47

    Hi, Your Needle is interesting but either disingenuous or a deliberate falsehood. You write “This means that only 28% of Europeans were exposed to second-hand smoke in 2011.” No; the national and regional rates for smoking vary – the Nordic countries, Germany, and Russia are ridiculously high; France’s rate is actually lower than the US’s. But that isn’t the point.
    Smokers bitch that they have a right to smoke – the way, one supposed, one has the right to take heroin, beat children, and so on.
    Idiotic examples, to be sure, but still. “Choice” is one thing; a “right” is another. If a stranger drank beer and your child (or you) got drunk, you’d complain. It’s not that smoking is a mere annoyance, or that smoking as a legal choice somehow outranks others’ rights (not to smoke) and health (we all need to breathe), but that smokers complain that their selfish addiction (guilt, perhaps) warrants a defense. If you wanna smoke, go do it. But why can’t Germans (and others) see they haven’t any special God- or legal-given right to deny the privileges, rights, needs of others. It’s as simple as that. Die if you want; but smokers haven’t the right to kill others.

    I’d *love* to spend a lot of time in Germany – i appreciate the culture, the language, the food, the regional differences, the history and arts – but can’t enjoy it ’cause the f—-g selfish smokers. Hmmm… We’re not dictators who don’t want smoke – we just want rights and a social life. Tschüß

    • 23/02/2014 at 13:03

      Hi Benoit,

      No, it’s not a deliberate falsehood that 28% of Europeans were exposed to second-hand smoke in bars across the EU in 2012. This statistic comes from the EU itself, you can see the press release here:
      The whole point of my article (a point you seem to have missed) was, however, to show that while across Europe rates have fallen, in Berlin you are still almost guaranteed to breathe in second-hand smoke if you go out to a bar at night. An article entitled ‘Berlin Bleeds Your Lungs’ is hardly an apology for Berlin’s smoking laws.
      Best, J.

  • 19/08/2014 at 20:16

    I lived in Berlin for a few months a few years ago, and upon coming back to visit, I forgot that it’s like trying to exist in an ashtray. It seems there’s almost nowhere you can seek refuge from cigarette smoke. Any bar or nightclub, (or restaurant exterior for that matter), is like walking into wall of smoke. Just smell your clothes at the end of the day. Even down a sidewalk, you get a waft of someone’s cigarette downwind. People have a right to do what they want, but it really is hard to watch the unbelievable pervasiveness of smoking in this town, where one lights up one right after another right after another right after another. It’s no wonder the cancer rates are sky high. Yes, they seem very defensive about it. At their own peril unfortunately, and anyone else who’s nearby.

  • 27/10/2014 at 14:10

    I´m really impressed that YOU WERE THE ONLY INFORMATION I FOUND ON SMOKING IN BERLIN. I was there this month and the situation didn´t change – couples smoking where children are playing, INSIDE subway cars… man, I was shocked!!! Berlin is really awesome, clean, historical… but I couldn´t live there… and I live in Sao Paulo, Brasil, a lot worse than Berlin, but much better on smoking free policies… sad.

    • 30/12/2015 at 12:58

      I hate to generalise but many Berliners don’t care about anyone but themselves. Take a look at all the dog shit on the streets..
      Even the farcical ‘Bio’ (organic) supermarkets (of which there are plenty in the pretentious Prenzlauer Berg area), sell tobacco!!

      Get your head around that!!

  • 01/02/2015 at 10:25

    It really is the worst thing about the place. We lived there for a few months two years ago and couldn’t drink in any of the corner bars as the air made us want to throw up. There are one or two good places for non smokers to drink but you have to hunt around. And even then sometimes the selfish tossers light up and you have to go across and ask them to put it out: usually they swear at you. Nice. Next time I’ll fart in their face and see if they like it.

  • 25/10/2015 at 13:57

    I love the irony of these comments.

    ‘If I want to go out and trash my body with alcohol, I better not have smelly clothes after…’

    Prolonged exposure to second hand smoke is an issue, but if you go out often enough for it to be an issue you have bigger problems.

    Ban it for the bar staff by all means.

  • 17/11/2015 at 22:06

    I’ve only been in Berlin for a few days, but have already gone through half a bottle of Febreeze in trying to get the smoke out of clothes. So gross.

  • 07/01/2016 at 19:56

    From which countries do you come from, where smoking is less prevalent? Must be paradise!

    I live in Bavaria, which apparently has the strictest bans on smoking of all of Germany.
    Guess what? You can’t go anywhere without inhaling smoke.
    Going for a walk? The whole road stinks. Sitting outside on a summer day? The whole terrace below is a cloud of smoke fog.
    I’ve even been exposed to smoke inside public buildings (hospitals etc) because there were jerks smoking inside the halls.
    And don’t get me started on Swabia, where every second dude is a smoker.

    • 31/05/2018 at 09:37

      Yeah, I thought I was the only one feeling this way, as if everyone else is immune to the smoke and doesn’t even notice it. I’ve said many times that it’s a hellhole and people thought I was overreacting. Often when outdoors I need to run to the other side of the street in order to escape the trail of smoke, but the problem is it’s ubiquitous!

  • 12/07/2016 at 20:00

    Why doesn’t anyone think of athsma sufferers? Allowing smoking in your city’s venues is akin to banning people with a common disability from enjoying live music, club dancing and partying for the rest of their lives! How is that acceptable?! I’m a big music fan who goes out to see live music at least weekly. I hate second hand smoking and I’ve considered this as I’ve been planning to move to Berlin where I was looking forward to the music scene. But this Spring I’ve developed asthma for the first time in my life and suddenly there’s NO compromising my air for smokers. It boggles my mind to think that a city like Berlin, a world capital of night life would be completely off limits to asthma sufferers because of the smoking. I’m going to have to replan my life now and find some other city to live in. This is ridiculous!

  • 12/07/2016 at 20:04

    I’ve actually been considering proceeding with my plans to live in Berlin and to go out to shows wearing a gas mask or respriator and a sign explaining I have asthma and this venue allows smoking. Why let the venues owners and the smokers bully us who value our breath out of partying on the town? I think it would be an awesome protest. Even better if it caught on. 😉

    • 09/10/2016 at 06:17

      They bully you out because you are fewer than the people who would go somewhere else if smoking wasn’t allowed.

  • 31/05/2018 at 09:51

    I would never travel to Berlin if if weren’t for my children living here. The smoking is really awful. On a hot summer night I need to choose between sleeping in a stuffy room or leaving the window open and inhaling second hand smoke from a window below me. Last night I was awakened at 2 am with the bedroom full of cigarette smoke and it was too late to close it because the smoke had already entered so wouldn’t do any good. As a result I’m feeling groggy this morning and inefficient, hard to concentrate and can’t get much work done.
    Statistics show that in 2017 30% of the adult population in Berlin smokes, but in truth, if you include the part-time smokers and the “party smokers” it’s closer to 70%. Often a “non smoker” would tell me that they light up when they go out once in a while because everyone is smoking and they want to be part of the crowd.

  • 31/08/2018 at 10:59

    I just moved to Berlin back in June. I have been here many times on vacation, and honestly managed to avoid most of the smoking. I actually used to smoke, although not much at all (unless I had whiskey….) and many of my friends smoke, so back home in the US I never really mind it much when friends smoke. Here, I have learned that I can get smoke hangovers. I wake up in the middle of the night after going to a bar with my sinuses swollen, a headache, and so stuffed up I can’t breathe for an entire day. At first i thought….wait…I didn’t drink much at all. Soon I realized the smoking was the cause. Whether I’m at work and someone is smoking outside and it’s coming into the window, or waking up in the middle of the night because someone is smoking outside my apartment window…I’m soaked in it.

    I find it incredibly selfish. I have no problem with someone making a decision to smoke. We all know the health risks, and a smoker has decided that those are irrelevant. Fine. But non-smokers have decided they aren’t irrelevant, yet if I ever want to go out on a weekend, I inhale the equivalent of several packs of cigarettes. The argument of “no one will go out to bars!” is frankly stupid. Smoking is not allowed in the US in bars, and yet they have all managed to not only survive, but thrive and become better.

    Summers here are lovely, and I love to eat outside, but I can’t. I eat inside and find a place way in the back so I can avoid the smoke. This is a lot more difficult than I thought. It’s quite literally making me sick. /end rant

  • 18/09/2018 at 06:52

    Blame Big Tobacco! After the crackdown on cigarette advertizing in the US, the focus on other markets intensified. I can remember standing in lines to get in various clubs on weekend nights and watching as young girls in snappy uniforms handed out FREE boxes of cigarettes to all the young people in line; many brands were doing this. This was in the mid-to-late ’90s. A generation later, all those former kids are hooked (and their kids grew up cigarette-normalized homes). Not to mention all the women I regularly see smoking as they push their prams…

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