MADRID — Tapas bars – the noisy and bustling Spanish success story that combined delicious morsels with good wine and often a cloud of cigarette smoke – are now smoke-free. So are restaurants, discos, casinos, airports and even some outdoor spaces.
Spain on Sunday introduced an anti-smoking law that is likely to turn the EU's fourth largest tobacco producer from a cigarette-friendly land abounding with smoky bars and restaurants, into one of Europe's most stringently smokeless.
The law prohibits lighting up in enclosed public places, although hotels are allowed to reserve 30 percent of their rooms for smokers. In a particularly tough measure, outside smoking is banned in open-air children's playgrounds – even those inside parks – and at access points to schools and hospitals.
"It's a step that should have been taken four years ago, but I think the government got cold feet," said bakery worker Inma Amantes Ramos, 29.
Parliament approved an anti-smoking law in 2006 that prohibited smoking in the workplace but allowed bar and restaurant owners with premises under 100 square meters (1,100 square feet) to decide whether to allow smoking or not – and almost all permitted it.
Critics called the law a failure. Health Minister Leire Pajin said around 50,000 people died each year in Spain as a result of smoking-related illnesses, with around 1,200 of those being nonsmokers who inhaled secondhand smoke.
Larger restaurants were allowed to build hermetically sealed smoking sections, but now those spaces can no longer be used for smoking – a revolution for Spaniards used to wining, dining and lighting up.
The law stipulates that a minor infringement should be penalized with fines from euro30 ($40) to euro600 ($800) while very serious breaches will attract fines from euro10,001 ($13,000) to euro600,000 ($800,000).
But the penalties are unlikely to deter many Spaniards who consider smoking in restaurants a virtual right.
"I don't like bans," said travel agent Marcos Yubero, 49, who admitted he had just sneaked a quick smoke in a bar men's room in downtown Madrid. "People should be allowed to choose for themselves how they behave and frankly after a couple of drinks most people I know reach for their cigarette packs without thinking."
Spain's main restaurant and bar federation predicted the law will lead to 145,000 lost jobs and a 10 percent decline in revenue for the sector, but the Health Ministry said similar laws put in place in recent years in nations ranging from Britain to France and Italy did not hurt business badly.
The law does allow for private smoking clubs that bar children and require registration – but they can't let people eat, drink or buy cigarettes on the premises.
Spain's National Committee for the Prevention of Smoking says up to 1,000 waiters die yearly from lung ailments, mainly from breathing secondhand smoke.
By 2012 all of the EU's 27 member states should have banned smoking in enclosed areas.