If you ask someone from Rioja what bothers them most these days, chances are it’s not the economy, the unemployment rate or the scores from last week’s football games, but rather Spain’s new antismoking law, that came into effect on January 2. The earlier law was a toothless piece of legislation that pandered to every smokers lobby in the country, led by the bar and restaurant associations, for whom smoking was the lifeblood of their industry. Imagine a law that allowed bars to decide if they were smoking or non-smoking. I never saw a single bar with a sign that said no smoking was allowed, meaning that whenever I went out for a drink I had to put up with other customers’ smoke, making the bar look like a back room where politicians were making some kind of deal.
Fortunately, the law didn’t take effect on January 1 when Spain en masse is celebrating New Year’s. My wife told me that she and my son went out for a glass of wine before lunch on New Year’s Day (I was in bed with the flu). The smokers were outside, puffing away while holding their drinks. She thought “this new law might really work.”
Fat chance. Two young Chinese guys walked into the bar to play the slot machines. Men like them are famous in Spain because they seem to know when the machines are going to pay out so they sit on bar stools nursing a glass of beer while feeding money into the machines. Suddenly, they lit up cigarettes. The reaction of the smokers in the bar was instantaneous. Every smoker lit up, immediately enveloping the bar in a yellow cloud. My wife told me about it and we had a good laugh because it was still legal to smoke inside until the next day.
The new law, while largely observed, is a perfect example of a typical Spanish attitude: I only care about my rights and don’t give a damn about yours. Smokers, angry at having to go outside to indulge, are oblivious to the inconvenience they cause to the rest of the customers in the bar. Probably the most intransigent attitude of all was taken by the owner of a restaurant in Marbella on the south coast who, in an act of Spanish civil disobedience, continued to let customers smoke in his bar and even appeared on TV, radio and in the papers to brag about it. This man, an ‘exile’ from the Basque Country (some say that he had refused to pay a tax imposed by ETA and was threatened) practically dared the police to enforce the law. They did, with a vengeance, fining the restaurant about 140.000 euros and shutting it down. I just read that the owner has recanted. After all, who can afford to part with that kind of money in today’s economy?
Bar and restaurant owners all over Spain say that the law is the straw that broke the camel’s back on top of the effects on consumption because of the economic crisis. I’ve been asking bars and restaurants if the law has adversely affected their businesses and have gotten a variety of answers. The bottom line seems to be that places that are well-run and popular are doing well, while the poorly-run ones are doing worse.
In a way, I sympathize with the smokers. After all, bars are the community centers in this country, open from 7 am to midnight, where people gather to read the newspaper, catch up on gossip, have breakfast, a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, a cup of coffee or a drink. A recent article in the Spanish newspaper El País talks about an unexpected advantage of going outside to smoke – people who meet members of the opposite sex while having a cigarette. This is called ‘smirting’, a combination of ‘smoking’ and ‘flirting’, a word coined in the USA in 2003. Apparently this technique is so successful that non-smokers often go outside with smokers because the action there is better than inside the bar. According to this article, in Ireland, where the law is similar to Spain’s, 25% of couples that met in 2007 and 2008 were the result of a cigarette smoked under the moonlight.
So, it seems that even though smoking in public places is now illegal, it’s a great way to start a relationship.