Living in Berlin

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 and historian 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. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. 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.

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