SMOKERS VERY WELCOME

by Ani Ivanova; photography by Daniel Lekov

Like everything else in Bulgaria, the smoking ban is a nine-day wonder

Smoking in Bulgaria.jpg

The Bulgarian State Railways have to ban smoking on all trains, Transport Minister Petar Mutafchiev decreed after a fire in the Sofia-Kardam overnight train in February which took nine lives. A burning cigarette end was one of the possible causes of the tragedy.

Ironically, this urgent safety measure was introduced exactly a year after the government adopted a National Programme for the Limitation of Tobacco Smoking in 2007-2010 involving a package of administrative, taxation and educational measures for the reduction of active and passive smoking. At that time the ministers waived the proposed full smoking ban in public places from 2008.

Instead, they kept the partial ban on tobacco smoking in public buildings, public transport, taxis, administrative offices and eateries introduced in 2005. The problem is that more often than not it has been ignored.

Try reproaching a bus driver in Sofia, for example, and see if he will extinguish his cigarette. He won't. Mini bus drivers also seem to obtain the dose of adrenaline needed to drive so fast and dangerously from the tobacco they incessantly puff. In taxis, both drivers and passengers turn a blind eye to the large yellow stickers saying “No smoking please” and smoke as they wish. Why should they act differently in other places, like trains, for instance?

The same goes for restaurants. Three years before the introduction of the partial ban, cafés, bars and eateries were obliged to allocate tables for non-smokers. They did - often by putting smoking and non-smoking signs on neighbouring tables, without providing separate rooms or at least a proper ventilation system. Today, even the signs are gone and seat allocation can miraculously change in a second - by plonking an ashtray on the table.

There is no running away from tobacco smoke in office buildings either. The special rooms provided for the purpose are rarely well sealed and as a rule smokers are not happy with the restrictions and avail themselves of any opportunity to avoid them, such as being the majority, the cold weather and so on. If the boss smokes, this is a strong argument for the rest to flout the ban.

TV cameras often show ministers, MPs, city councillors and officials from the National Health Insurance Fund smoking at press conferences or in their workplaces. None of them has been punished for breaking the regulations. In comparison, in Germany when former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, now editor of Die Zeit, lit a cigarette in a public place, he was immediately fined.

One of the reasons for the failure of the partial ban, which aimed to reduce the number of active smokers and protect passive ones, is the Bulgarians' lack of respect for any administrative restrictions. They are simply not observed irrespective of their purpose: to stop illegal downloading of music and films from the Internet or ban the dumping of construction waste materials in communal dustbins.

Another reason is the slack administrative control. The surprise inspections in restaurants and public buildings that the Ministry of Health has promised are still practically nonexistent. The fines, which range from 50 to 300 leva for individuals and from 500 to 1,500 leva for businesses are an argument in favour of proprietors: they prefer to pay them rather than lose their patrons, probably because they are also aware that harsher penalties, such as closing down their establishment, are not envisaged.

In 2007, the Hygiene and Epidemiology Inspectorate, which administers the implementation of the ban, imposed 1,343 fines for a total of 122,000 leva. There is no information on how many of these were paid. Like passengers who travel without a ticket on public transport, anyone violating a regulation has the right to refuse to show his ID if the inspector is not accompanied by a police officer, who can then write an official penalty notice. Thus the efficiency of the system is dubious.

The government has been fighting smoking with other measures - with the same varying success. The rise of tobacco excise duties in 2001 and especially the sharp increase of 55-70 percent in 2006 led to a growth on the black market. Today contraband Karelia and Marlboro cigarettes are on sale at competitive prices in well-known locations in every city. However dramatic, the rise in tobacco prices did not lead to a drop in the number of smokers - in Bulgaria smoking is a reaction to stress and remains a faster and more accessible therapy than a visit to a psychotherapist.

According to the National Programme, tobacco excise duties are to rise once again before 2010. Besides reaching the minimum EU rates, the measure will theoretically reduce the number of smokers. A 2003 report of the World Health Organisation shows that a 10 percent increase of tobacco prices in Europe has led to a decrease in the number of smokers of between 2.5 and five percent in the short term and up to 10 percent in the long term.

As the data of the organisation reveal, Bulgaria has the third largest tobacco consumption per capita in the world after Greece and Japan. It ranks first in Europe and fifth in the world with regard to cardiovascular diseases and cerebrovascular strokes. There are still no results from the national survey of smokers conducted by the Ministry of Health in Bulgaria in 2007, but according to the previous survey in 2001, 40.5 percent of the population are smokers.

The average figure for Europe is 29.4 percent. There is also a difference in the attitude to smokers. While in Europe and the United States they are considered “losers,” in Bulgaria it is quite common for the top brass to smoke without even worrying what others will think of them. On the other hand, non-smokers are usually rather tolerant of smokers, although they try to fight the consequences of their habit - normally by airing both the rooms and their clothes.

In March and April 2007, however, an Internet poll on the future policies of the EU regarding smoking in public places showed that 97.3 percent of 368 Bulgarians interviewed were in favour of a total or partial ban on tobacco smoking.

The full ban on smoking in public places has been an European model for several years. But Bulgarians are unprepared to observe even the smallest restrictions of their usual way of life, no matter how positive they may be. Just look at what is happening with the containers for separate collection of waste. Everybody is clear about the benefits they have, but their most common users are the ones who set them on fire.


Smokers' Paradise

The cost of a pack of 20
UK £4.80- 6
France 5.30 euros
Greece 3.20-3.50 euros
Bulgaria 1.00-1.80 euros

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