A campaign led by Austrian doctors to provide smoke free areas in some public places has forced the new right wing government to place petitions in polling stations across the country and could lead to a referendum on the issue.
The newly elected governing coalition of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in March abolished a law approved in 2015 that banned smoking in pubs and restaurants and that was due to take effect on 1 May. The coalition took the unprecedented action despite a highly successful “Don’t Smoke” campaign by the Austrian Medical Association and the Austrian Cancer Society, which launched in February (https://dontsmoke.at). The campaign’s online petition in support of the 2015 law has so far collected more than 590 000 signatures.
Under current Austrian law, pubs and restaurants under 50 m2 can allow smoking throughout the premises, while larger ones must have non-smoking areas. However, supporters of a smoking ban say that the law is often ignored and that non-smoking areas are usually not smoke free.
Paul Sevelda, president of the Austrian Cancer Society and a gynaecologist, told The BMJ that abolishing the 2015 smoking ban law was a “catastrophe from the standpoint of public health and is absolutely unacceptable.”
Kurt Aigner, president of the Austrian Council on Smoking and Health and former head of the department of chest medicine at the Ordens hospital in Linz, also criticised the new government, telling The BMJ, “I feel angry about the politicians, the lies, and their actions.”
Although the “Don’t Smoke” campaign did not prevent the government from scrapping the smoking ban, the signatures surpassed the number needed under Austrian law to force the government to place petitions in support of the 2015 smoking ban law in public buildings throughout Austria between 1 and 8 October.
If 900 000 people sign the petition by 8 October, the government has said that it would hold a referendum on the issue, although this unlikely to take place before 2021.
Manfred Neuberger, vice president of the Austrian Council on Smoking and Health and a professor emeritus at the Medical University of Vienna, told The BMJ, “We suspect that the tobacco industry supported the election campaign of the right wing Freedom Party.” The party is a member of Kurz’s ruling coalition and was the main proponent of abolition of the 2015 smoking ban.
Neuberger, who wrote a BMJ blog earlier this year on smoking in Austria,1 said, “The government does not listen to scientists, only to lobbyists.”