Europeans chafe under New Year 'nanny state' laws
Jan 3 01:57 AM US/Eastern
Europe started 2008 with a raft of new laws against smoking, air pollution and even junk food adverts, but some grumbled that the New Year's resolutions from the "nanny state" cramped their style.
Germany, France and Portugal joined many of their neighbours with anti-smoking bans in bars, restaurants and cafes from January 1, lifting the grey haze that was part of their romantic atmosphere for more than a century.
In car-crazy Germany, drivers in major cities including the capital Berlin faced restrictions barring smog-producing vehicles from their centres while the northern Italian city of Milan imposed tolls on the heaviest polluters.
And Britain cracked down on television commercials for food and drink products heavy in fat, salt and sugar that target children under the age of 16 in a bid to curb obesity.
While many accepted the new rules as reasonable measures in the name of public health, some bristled at what they called the state's overreach and the creeping end of the European way of life.
"I will not let anyone stop me from smoking at my own business," Ali, owner of the Westend Pinte bar in Berlin, told Germany's mass-market Bild newspaper.
"I've been smoking 40 cigarettes a day since I was 12 -- I can't quit now."
Anne Cicek, manager of the Bier Bar in east Berlin, told the daily Berliner Zeitung that she would defy the rules: "We are not little children who need to be told what we cannot do."
The conservative newspaper Die Welt noted that 19th century revolutionaries in Berlin had waved the banner for, among other civil liberties, the right to smoke wherever they pleased.
"The freedom to smoke in public was one of the few lasting achievements of 1848. That is over now," it lamented. "Of course neither the West nor democracy will founder with the smoking ban. But will anything really be gained for people's well-being or their health?"
After years of fierce resistance by the restaurant lobby, the legislation passed in Germany is piecemeal: smoking bans will be rolled out state by state until July and most allow establishments to maintain separate smoking sections.
Portugal implemented similar rules.
France in effect sent its more than 13 million smokers out into the cold on New Year's Day as few bars and restaurants took on the large renovation and equipment costs to construct separate smoking rooms.
Despite opinion polls showing broad support for the ban, some commentators saw a threat to France's hallowed "liberte".
Writing in the left-wing Liberation newspaper, sociologist Henri Pierre Jeudy suggested the ban marked "the end of an era" for France -- and a danger for personal freedoms.
"Public health costs are being used to justify an ever more coercive control over our private lives," he said, with France's yen for smoky cafes now cast as "an unhealthy mistake".
But Jeudy also warned that "alcohol and tobacco have traditionally been used as weapons against stress."
"Their use, and sometimes abuse, has probably prevented many a collective revolt. Will banning them spark new rebellions?"
In a column in the influential Le Monde, doctor Micheline Benatar challenged the ban as the first step toward a "totalitarian society".
"'Life kills,', 'Drinking kills,' 'Eating badly kills' too," she wrote.
"How long will the law continue to allow menus 'a la carte' in restaurants and cafes? When will it start to impose low-fat menus -- for our own good... to guarantee stable blood pressure, low blood sugar and cholesterol?"
"True, passive smoking is a public health concern. But is it not worse to start a car engine than to light up a cigarette?"
As if in answer to the question, the German cities of Hanover and Cologne as well as Berlin banned the dirties cars and trucks from their centres, with another 20 due to follow suit this year. Vehicle owners in Milan must acquire an "ecopass" to enter the city centre free of cost.
The reform "is the most serious attempt until now to get to grips with the most serious source of air pollution, which causes 75,000 premature deaths per year," said German green group Deutsche Umwelthilfe.
But the Berliner Zeitung said an "emotional" campaign against smoking and air pollution had led to strict new measures that overshot their mark.
"The fight against the 'diesel stinkers' threatens to be the same," it wrote.
"Not everyone with well-founded doubts about the 'ecozone' as an instrument is an automobile industry lobbyist. Most German cities have until now decided against such bans. Are they all wrong?"