Austrian lawmakers vote to hinder smoking ban in restaurants and bars

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s lower house of parliament voted on Thursday to scrap an impending ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, backing the coalition government despite opposition from health campaigners and opposition parties.

FILE PHOTO: An ash tray with cigarette butts is pictured in Hinzenbach, in the Austrian province of Upper Austria, February 5, 2012. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

The ban is due to come into effect in May and would bring Austria more into line with fellow European Union countries, many of which have far stricter smoke-free legislation, including Britain, Hungary and Bulgaria.

More than half a million people in Austria have signed an official petition calling for the ban to go ahead, embarrassing the ruling coalition of conservatives and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which has championed both the freedom to smoke and direct democracy.

An FPO demand to have the ban scrapped was written into the coalition agreement struck three months ago. Now that parliament has approved the bill, it must still be approved by the upper house and signed by the president. It is widely expected to pass both.

“This has not happened before in modern Europe,” the organizers of the petition -- Vienna’s doctors’ association and the country’s main anti-cancer organization -- said in a statement, calling the vote “a unique bad example”.

Footage from parliament showed lawmakers from the ruling People’s Party and FPO standing together to vote in favor of the bill lifting the ban, despite the petition’s organizers having called for a whip-free vote.

Roughly 540,000 people have signed the petition, which will run until April 4, though the initiative has lost momentum recently.

Tourists drawn to Austria by its picturesque mountains, classical music and elegant architecture are often surprised to find the air indoors is less fresh than they had imagined. Many bars and restaurants still have large areas filled with smokers.

The FPO says a smoking ban would be an unnecessary intrusion on individual liberty and an unfair imposition on bar and restaurant owners. Opponents say public health is more important and point to the cancer risk posed by passive smoking.

According to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data from 2014, 24.3 percent of people 15 and older smoke daily in Austria, the fourth-highest rate in the 35-nation OECD, behind Hungary, Greece and Turkey.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky