UPDATE: 2015 – Austria may be on the verge of changing their restaurant smoking law, but there is still huge opposition from the chamber of commerce’s restaurant group and lots of public controversy. I’ll let you know if sanity ever prevails.

Something that always surprises me when I return to Austria is the large number of people who smoke. According to the European Public Health Alliance, the Eurobarometer survey shows smoking rising alarmingly in Austria – smoking prevalence has increased from 31% (2006) to 33% (2012). For comparison the US rate was 17.8% in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Here's an outdoor smoking area in Stockholm. It seems like a good solution: places to sit, ashtrays and heating (not visible). Photo of Berlin Bar in Stockholm.

Here’s an outdoor smoking area in Stockholm. It seems like a good solution: places to sit, ashtrays and heating (not visible). Photo of Berlin Bar in Stockholm.

The European Union requires countries to regulate smoking in public places. Countries are allowed to develop their own specific laws so there’s no universal ban for smoking in public places as there is in many US states. Austria was quite late in regulating smoking and it’s been a very controversial process.

The Austrian law is complicated. It allows restaurants and bars under 40 square meters to choose whether to be “Smoking” or “Non-smoking”. Restaurants and bars that are over 40 square meters can be all non-smoking or can create smoking and non-smoking zones (60% of the space must be non-smoking). Establishments with smoking and non-smoking zones are supposed to install walls and ventilation equipment to keep the non-smoking areas smoke-free.

The law compromised on a full ban because many restaurant owners – like their counterparts throughout the world – argued that a full smoking ban would put them out of business. It’s probably true that a full ban would put some of the quite small bars out of business, but it’s also probably true that even if the government had to pay to retrain people running these bars it would likely reduce health spending in a couple years. (The number of heart attacks in the UK fell drastically within a year of their banning smoking in public.) It’s also true that tobacco in Austria is a government-sponsored monopoly, so there are some strange complicating factors.

One of the main problems with the law is that, since it’s possible to have small restaurants where people can smoke, it’s very hard for restaurant owners who want to have a smoke-free restaurant. They are worried about losing the business from smokers (and, as mentioned above, a lot of Austrians smoke). This means that the larger restaurants have almost been required to spend a great deal of money building walls and adding ventilation equipment – often in historic buildings where construction is difficult and impacts the design. Furthermore, the law has not been as effective as the EU regulations require, so it may need to be made stronger in the future.

Why is Austria’s smoking law important to you as a visitor to Vienna?

Because you need to be careful when choosing a restaurant or you could find yourself sitting in a smoke filled room. The problems are:

  • small restaurant that allows smoking;
  • large restaurant with bad separation/ventilation;
  • outdoor seating (there are almost never separate smoking/non-smoking areas for outdoor seating);

So, I’ll always try to mention the smoking situation at restaurants I describe in my blogging. In the meantime here’s a link to da.stinkts.net … a list of non-smoking restaurants in Austria (German) even has an iPhone app (although the site seems not to have been updated since late 2010). Interestingly the normally very helpful Vienna Travel Service website does not have a list.

You may think a little smoke doesn’t bother you. But, you ‘d be surprised. In places where people smoke in Austria, they tend to smoke a lot. Also, once you are used to eating in restaurants where there is no smoking, you’ll likely be shocked to smell smoke in a restaurant.

One final word. Controversial. If you want to get people started arguing in Austria, it’s easy, just start talking about smoking. It’s not like America where smoking often connotes lower educational and economic status. In Austria many smokers are highly educated and upper income – that’s one of the differences you notice. Also, many people seem to buy into the tobacco company line that smoking is a personal decision that should never be regulated.

My opinion? Let smokers smoke outdoors. It works all over the world even in countries where you could never have imagined it 10-years ago (think Italy). And, it hasn’t led to fewer restaurants, different restaurants, but not fewer.