A protest on February 1 2013 in front of Parliament against Bulgaria’s full ban on smoking in public places would, organisers said, draw more than 2000 participants, but unofficial estimates put turnout at about a tenth of that number – while inside, the Health Minister and ruling party vowed that there would be no backtrack on the ban.
The protest was organised by Andrei Slabakov, who has made overturning the smoking ban the signature issue of his political party, Free Choice. Slabakov has been photographed in public wearing a yellow Star of David, in the style of the Nazi era, but with the word “smoker” imposed on it.
In the first few months of the ban, opposition to the ban was led by Bulgaria’s hotel and restaurant industry, which protested against huge losses of revenue as smokers stayed away. The February 1 protest was organised by Slabakov, apparently in the hope that a cross-party consensus among Bulgaria’s high percentage of smokers would propel him and his newly-formed party into Parliament.
Bulgaria’s full ban on smoking in public places came into effect in June 2012, outlawing smoking in restaurants, bars and other enclosed public places. Attempts towards the end of the year to amend the law to revert to the previous version, which allowed separate smoking areas in bars and restaurants, came to nothing. Procedurally, however, the proposed amendments will be put to a full plenary of the National Assembly, Bulgaria’s unicameral Parliament, before regular parliamentary elections to be held around mid-2013.
Asked by journalists to comment on the protest, Health Minister Desislava Atanasova said that the smoking ban had been in effect for several months “was a sign of European behaviour” and neither she, nor the Prime Minister, nor the ruling party would accept amendments diluting the provisions.
Atanasova also rejected a minority party’s proposal to hold a national referendum on legislation on smoking.
The 20 million leva (about 10 million euro) that such a referendum would cost would be better spent on health care, she said. Bulgaria was having to spend 148 million leva on equipment for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, Atanasova said.
The head of Parliament’s health committee, Daniela Daritkova, confirmed that the proposed amendments would be discussed by the National Assembly in the first half of 2013. The health committee had “strongly and unanimously” rejected the amendments and she hoped that Parliament would take the same approach.
The head of the committee on the economy, Dian Chervenkondev, said that it was not normal for such amendments to put to MPs time and time again.
Dr Gergana Geshanova, head of the “Bulgaria Without Smoke” coalition said that in the first two months after the ban came into effect, three per cent of smokers had stopped smoking.
(Photo: Romana Ferrer)