Written by David Creighton
It´s fairly safe to say that smoking (kouření) is still a popular activity in the Czech Republic. If you´re a smoker then you´ll find the Czech Republic a more tolerant country than many of its European counterparts; if you´re not you´ll probably be rather shocked at how acceptable smoking still is here.
It must be said that there has been a gradual shift in thinking in favour of the non-smoker since 1989, with a greater awareness of the need for clean air environments and non-smoking areas in restaurants becoming more common. You´ll also see smokers huddled outside their workplaces, as more firms move towards smoke-free environments. But many argue that the words Kouření zakázano (No smoking) aren‘t seen enough in the Czech Republic and that the country lags behind other European nations in anti-smoking measures.
On 1 January a new law came into force here, amending a previous act of 1989. The altered legislation made smoking illegal in public places, including schools, cinemas and theatres, concert halls, exhibition venues, sports halls and centres, and places where work meetings are held. Smoking is also banned in public administration offices. The exception to this is in cases where there are special, “structurally separate sections reserved for smokers”. The Act also says that such areas should be clearly marked with “Prostor vyhrazený pro kouření – “Space Reserved for Smoking”). The law introduces financial penalties for operators breaching the law on smoking, for example a pub owner who allows smoking will be fined or banned from running the pub for two years.
The smoking debate is most contentious regarding cafés, restaurants and pubs. A large number of such establishments are very smoky places indeed, and many Czechs see smoking in them as something they have done for years and feel that they shouldn´t have to stop now.
They argue that provision was always made for non-smokers, and under the old law smoking was forbidden when meals, i.e. breakfast lunch and dinner, were being served. Thus it has been a tradition for cafés, restaurants and pubs to forbid smoking at lunchtime, usually between 11am and 2pm, although usually this has often only been in a certain area of the establishment.
The new law is rather confusing because it now allows smoking during main mealtimes in cafés, restaurants and bars rather than clamping down on it. It says they should have separate smoking areas, but many places have an open plan layout and don´t have separate rooms for smokers, or even an area sectioned off. The question is whether owners will be obliged to adapt their premises to take into account the needs of non-smokers. Furthermore, many pub owners are reluctant to introduce smoking areas because they feel it is too expensive and they also argue that smoking is all part of the experience in a normal Czech pub. They say that many regulars would leave if smoking were to be banned. Critics of the law say an outright ban should have been introduced in the interests of public health, arguing that the law is geared towards the interests of the tobacco industry. The legislation therefore seems to be more smoker-friendly when it comes to restaurants, cafés and bars, although many establishments will continue to ban smoking at certain times.
There are however ways to avoid cigarette smoke if going for a meal. If you just want a simple pub lunch you should be prepared to put up with some inconvenience, because in the simple hospoda a smoke-free environment is basically wishful thinking. But in more upmarket restaurants you´ll find it easier to find a non-smoking area, even if it´s just partitioned off by a screen. Some restaurants have a total smoking ban, such as the Hybernia Restaurant on Hybernská 7, Prague 1, or Modra lavička Thai restaurant on Opletalova 17, Prague 1. The website www.dokurte.cz , run by the Czech Anti-Tobacco Coalition, has a list of cafés, restaurants and hotels where a no-smoking policy applies.
Non-smokers have more hope when it comes to public facilities such as theatres or cinemas, where in many cases provision has been already been made for smokers and non-smokers, with a kuřárna (smoking room) available. Smoking has long been banned on public transport in towns, and you´ll also notice that people don´t flout the rules, I´ve only ever seen one person smoking on the public transport system in Prague, although he was a tourist and therefore presumably unaware of the rules. In the rear carriage of double carriage trams smokers could in theory take advantage of the fact that there is no driver in the rear wagon to enforce the rules, although I´ve never seen anyone smoking there. On the other hand, it´s still common to travel on a smoke free bus or tram yet see the driver drawing on a cigarette.
One of the most controversial aspects of the new act bans smoking at bus and tram stops, but critics have said that this will be impossible to enforce and there is already debate about defining a bus or tram stop and where it begins or ends.
On trains there are special compartments (Kuřácké oddelění) for smokers, and there are smoking permitted/not permitted on the sides of carriages. When buying a ticket you can specify whether you want a smoking compartment or a non-smoking compartment (nekuřácké oddelění) although local trains don´t have provision for smokers. Be aware however that even non-smoking carriages aren´t totally smoke free – I´ve noticed people smoking in the corridors of non-smoking carriages. The new law bans smoking in station waiting rooms and on platforms. Smoking is not permitted on buses, either local or long-distance.
The new law has just been passed, and it will be interesting to see how it will be received. Smoking will probably go on in the oddest and most annoying places, such as lifts, flat stairwells, office buildings and waiting rooms, and it may be a long time before the Czech Republic adopts the more stringent laws of other countries.