Greece, praised for its budget cutbacks and austerity programme, is going after another vice from today: smoking.
The Socialist government will impose a tough ban that outlaws lighting up in enclosed public areas and prohibits tobacco advertising. Offenders will be fined up to £8,250 (€9,960m) and face swift prosecution.
With the help of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, the campaign will include an advertising blitz that hands out an anti-smoking board games to children.
All this is happening in a country where 42% of people over 15 smoke, well above the European average of 29%.
In Greece, where chain smokers are still fairly common, lighting up was once regarded by many as a symbol of the national disregard for rules. But the government thinks it is now time to break the habit.
Deep in a debt crisis, prime minister George Papandreou is struggling to repair a near-bankrupt economy after decades of overspending.
Like the austerity plan, the smoking ban will help teach Greeks to consider the consequences of their actions, he says.
“It will contribute to the work we’re doing today that’s aimed at changing attitudes, norms and behaviour to improve our quality of life and to make our country viable, not just its economy but in every day life,” Mr Papandreou said.
Gregory Connolly, a Harvard professor of public health, said that smoking was an enormous problem for Greece.
Speaking in Boston, he said: “We can conservatively project that of all the children alive in Greece today, over 350,000 will be killed prematurely by smoking unless urgent action is taken.”
Prof Connolly and colleagues from Harvard and the University of Athens are gathering data in Greek cities to gauge the effect of the ban.
The country’s health ministry says the measures are needed after efforts over eight years to impose partial smoking bans were generally ignored.
From today offices and businesses will ban smoking and close popular smoking rooms. Those caught breaking the new law will be fined between £42 (€50) and £420 (€508) and have their names recorded in an offender’s database. Businesses will be fined between £420 (€508) and £8,200 (€9,900).
Martin Dockrell, of British anti-smoking campaign group ASH, welcomed the Greek measures as part of a growing recognition by European governments that partial bans were ineffective.
“I would expect Greece to experience some of the greatest health benefits in Europe (from the ban) because it has such high smoking rates,” he said.
“If (smokers) can cope with sitting on a street corner in rainy London and windy Dublin, beautiful and sunny Greece shouldn’t pose much of a challenge.”
But Greek bar and restaurant owners, already hit by a recession and a shaky tourism season, say a dip in business could cost them their livelihood.
“Obviously, customers will not stay as long if they need to go outside for a smoke,” said Nikos Louvros, who owns a trendy central Athens bar, with laptops and chessboards.
“I can’t understand why smokers and non-smokers can’t have their own areas. You can filter the air and everyone would gets what suits them.”
Mr Louvros was so angered by a previous attempt to impose a smoking ban last year that he formed his own pro-smoking political party that received around 1,500 votes in the 2009 national election. He plans to run again in municipal polls in November.