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Greek bars defy ban and put ashtrays back on tables

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek bar and restaurant owners put ashtrays back on the tables on Monday, openly defying a smoking ban introduced by a government struggling to implement changes across society.

A woman smokes a cigarette behind a smoking ban sign in a restaurant-cafe in central Athens October 18, 2010. REUTERS/John Kolesidis

The restaurateurs refuse to apply the ban, which came after several failed attempts, saying it drives Europe’s heaviest smokers away at a time when business is already down because of Greece’s worst recession in decades.

“This ban is the final blow,” Yiorgos Kavathas, general secretary of the Greek restaurant owners federation, told Reuters. “Cafes and restaurants are shutting down. Our union estimates that at least 20,000 will close.”

Most bars and many restaurants have silently ignored the ban, which went into effect on September 1, allowing customers to puff indoors after initially removing their ashtrays.

On Monday they went one step further, openly declaring their refusal to comply despite threats of fines and revoking of licenses.

“This is the worst thing that could happen to a lawmaker and the government which has to enforce the law -- the refusal of society to comply with the rules,” Health Minister Andreas Loverdos told Skai radio.

Greece’s government is struggling to change other entrenched practices, including tax dodging, as part of reforms to streamline the state, fight corruption and re-establish the credibility of a country saved from bankruptcy by an EU/IMF bailout in May.

Tax revenues are lagging far behind target despite efforts to capture all money transactions.

Analysts said the smoking ban was a key test of the government’s determination to apply reforms. Roughly 40 percent of Greece’s 11 million population smoke.

“If the government bows to pressure, it does not bode well for everything else they are trying to do,” said Yanis Varoufakis, professor of economics at the University of Athens. “We have a long tradition in Greece of agreeing draconian laws without ever enforcing them.”

The Health Ministry’s general secretary for public health, Antonis Dimopoulos, said the government was determined to enforce the ban but was holding back on imposing fines because it wanted to persuade people to apply the ban voluntarily rather than force it through sanctions.

“We will continue implementing the ban no matter what,” he told Reuters, adding that the government would review its strategy in December. “This doesn’t mean we will withdraw the ban.”

Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Noah Barkin