Just before Christmas, I spent a few days in Belgrade and Budapest. It was extremely cold, and I had quite a bad cough and sore throat. As a consequence, beautiful as these cities are when covered with snow, I was inclined to stay inside.
No real problem there. The Central Europeans almost invented the cafe, and the options varied from little places that you enter by stumbling down a set of stone steps that lead to a cozy basement, to huge, spacious places that have ceiling murals that appear to have gotten a little lost after being originally planned to decorate the Sistine Chapel. (These specific ones tend to be more in Budapest than Belgrade, The Austrian Empire persists).
In any event, in both cities, cafes, bars, restaurants and taverns seem to invariably be filled with smoke. I am not a smoker, and although I generally prefer a venue without tobacco smoke, I am capable of putting up with it. However, with my sore throat, being in a room full of smoke led to quite a bit of discomfort. It would have been nice to find a cafe which was not full of smoke.
Of course, home in London, there is a complete smoking ban in bars, cafes, and restaurants. I would have been fine, but a smoker looking for a place to smoke that was not his home and was not indoors would have been out of luck. One cannot smoke even in premises specifically designed for the benefit of smokers: smoking clubs and cigar clubs are essentially illegal. Proponents of anti-smoking laws who claim that an exception for smoking clubs would be taken advantage of to allow smoking in other venues are correct of course. In places (eg Bavaria) where there is a smoking ban and an exception for smoking clubs, paying what you think is a cover charge when entering a jazz club, and discovering later that you are now a fully paid up member of a smoking club is not an unknown experience. On the other hand, I am hard pressed to see how this matters. There is no shortage of genuinely non-smoking venues in Bavaria.
When I go to Spain, I find what appears to be a far more satisfactory experience. Spanish law does not impose a complete smoking ban in bars, restaurants etc. The law there states that large venues shall be non-smoking, but there may be a smoking room. With respect to small venues, the owner of the property may decide whether smoking is permitted or not, and there shall be a clear sign near the door stating whether it is.
I find this a very satisfactory outcome. If I want a non-smoking venue, I have little difficulty finding one. I doubt smokers have much difficulty finding a venue that allows smoking, either. If I am in a large party of people that contains both smokers and non-smokers, then I can be away from smoke and smokers are free to go off and have a smoke in the smoking room. If I am in a small party of people that contains both smokers and non-smokers, then we can choose our venue between us. The non-smokers can choose to put up with some smoke, or the smokers can decide to refrain from smoking indoors for the evening. Non-smokers can freely associate with smokers, or not, as they choose.
However, there is still a slight problem. The Spanish legislation is far less heavy-handed than the British legislation. Requiring cafe owners to put up signs indicating whether smoking is allowed is far less objectionable than forcing a non-smoking policy on everyone, willing or not. Allowing smoking rooms is less heavy handed than insisting that entire venues are non-smoking. However, there is still coercion. The owners of private property are not entirely free to run their businesses on that private property as they please.
My gut feeling is that a genuinely free market would result in a situation similar to that existing in Spain, without any coercion at all. Some venues will allow smoking, and some will not. Different customers will choose to patronise venues with different policies, and different venues will cater for these different customers. In short, greater freedom will lead to greater choice.
And yet, in places like Belgrade and Budapest, this is not what seems to happen. Virtually all venues allow smoking, and as a customer I have little choice. Do cultural factors overwhelm freedom? I certainly hope not. Or are there some other regulatory or legal factors that lead to uniformity rather than freedom. I would be interested in people’s opinions on the matter.