Battle lines drawn as Bulgaria approaches rethink on smoking ban

Written by on December 11, 2012 in Bulgaria, News - No comments

A Bulgarian lobby group against allowing smoking in public places has called for support for a protest in front of Parliament on December 13 when the health committee will be asked to approve a paring back of the strict law against smoking in enclosed public places that came into effect in June 2012.

This is among the developments as battle lines are drawn over the proposed rethink, and there are apparent differences within the government about amending the ban on smoking in public places including restaurants, bars and night clubs.

Prime Minister Boiko Borissov has not publicly backed a retention of the ban, instead indicating that he was leaving the question up to his party’s parliamentary group. Economy, Energy and Tourism Minister Delyan Dobrev has been quoted as saying that he was inclined to flexibility on the issue and told reporters that a change to the law could come as soon as before this year’s Festive Season holidays.

Associations representing restaurateur and bar owners have been lobbying for an easing of the ban, and have staged public protests in front of Parliament, saying that the ban is harming their businesses and eliminating jobs.

But Health Minister Dr Desislava Atanasova is standing firmly by the ban, as is the chairperson of Parliament’s health committee, Dr Daniela Daritkova. Both insist that the primary consideration in the question of the future of the smoking ban must be public health.

Speaking to journalists on December 11, Atanasova said that it was inappropriate for the focus of the debate to be on the losses incurred by restaurants and bars instead of on the health of the nation. Bulgaria was first in the world on cardiological and oncological diseases, and all efforts should be on changing this statistic instead of people maintaining a bad habit.

On December 11, Dr Masha Gavrilova, of the Bulgaria without Smoke (България без Дим) association told news agency Focus that the ban on smoking in public places should not be lifted.

She said that the downturn in the number of customers at places of entertainment and catering establishments was not because of the smoking ban, but because of people’s reduced spending power, a result of the financial crisis.

“I cannot understand whether these places are for smoking or rather for eating and entertainment. One does not visit these establishments to smoke but to eat, meet pleasant people, have a nice time. If someone really wants to smoke, no one is banning them from stepping outside for a smoke for a couple of minutes and then coming back inside,” Gavrilova said.

Independent MPs said in November that they would table legislation to revert to the pre-June system of separate enclosed smoking areas in restaurants and bars, while reportedly the ruling party’s parliamentary caucus is considering an amendment that would allow smoking inside public places of entertainment after 10pm.

Independent MP Kiril Gumnerov said that he had canvassed parliamentary groups and found that 70 per cent of them supported a return to the previous system of rooms for smokers and for non-smokers. He said that if ruling party GERB MPs were given a free choice and were not subjected to an order from the party’s leadership on how to vote, 60 per cent of them would support his proposal. Gumnerov has claimed that because of the smoking ban, 10 000 people who were employed in the hospitality and entertainment industry lost their jobs in October 2012.

If approved by Parliament’s health committee, Gumnerov’s bill is expected to be put to the vote in the House some time in January 2013.

One ruling party MP, Emil Dimitrov, has gone public in backing an easing of the ban, calling for a reversion to the previous system and for allowing special smoking rooms in workplaces. He said that it did not make sense to require employees to lose time “going down 10 floors to smoke outside in the cold”.

Separately, however, Bulgarian-language media reports said that most ruling party MPs were not inclined to supporting a backtrack of the full ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces.

(Photo: mary ana/sxc.hu)

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