BERLIN (Reuters) - Photographer Frank Blum puffed contentedly on a hand-rolled cigarette in a cafe in central Berlin, blatantly ignoring a ban that went into effect in most of Germany this month.
“I‘m smoking because no one’s stopping me,” Blum, 43, said from behind his laptop, one of a dozen customers happily smoking without fear. “The cafes aren’t making it difficult.”
Blum is just one of many disobeying a law banning smoking in public places -- cafes, bars, restaurants and night clubs -- in force in Berlin and 11 other German states from January 1.
“My friends and I only go to places that let us smoke,” said Lena Reuster, a 24-year-old economics student surrounded by a cloud of her own smoke. “When we go out we want our beer and cigarettes. It doesn’t really matter until July.”
The changes left only four of Germany’s 16 states -- Saxony, Rheinland-Palatinate, Saarland and Thuringia -- with no ban. However, they plan to become smoke-free by July.
In the city-state of Berlin, the non-smoking bill issued by the Department of Health and Consumer Protection made police and proprietors responsible for enforcing the ban. They face fines up to 1,000 euros ($1,500) for violations.
Anyone now lighting up inside a public place is, in theory, risking a 100-euro fine, even though Berlin decided not to collect any fines until after a six-month transition period.
Berlin police have not responded to complaints about renegade smokers and are by and large letting cafe and bar owners decide whether customers can smoke or not.
“The smoking ban has taken effect but, during the transition period, it is not considered important,” said Berlin police spokeswoman Birit Koenigsmann. “We’re not sure what will happen from July but right now it’s not a top priority.”
Newspapers are full of stories from both sides of the ashtray.
The mass-circulation newspaper Bild reported that Gerhard Gruenberg, a Berlin pub owner, received two black eyes from an angry customer who rejected his request to smoke outside.
Some smokers in the town of Frankfurt on Oder on Germany’s eastern border, who face the state of Brandenburg’s even stricter regulations on smoking, have been crossing the border into Poland to puff in bars where there is no ban.
In Czech Republic border towns, tobacco addicts from Bavaria and Saxony have been filling the smoke-filled taverns, according to news reports in both countries.
One smoker in Hesse, where the ban took effect in October, caused a stir by selling t-shirts bearing a yellow Star of David and the word “smoker” in the centre, comparing the treatment of smokers to that of Jews under the Nazis.
“It’s brainless and tasteless for smokers to use the Holocaust in such a primitive fashion,” said Dieter Graumann, deputy president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
At the St. Oberholz cafe in Berlin where Blum and others were merrily puffing away the air was full of stale smoke. Manager Gerard Janssen, 40, said there was no point in following the rules if no one else was.
“We banned smoking for the first week of January but when we realized other cafes in the area were still allowing it, we did too,” he said. “We decided to give our patrons the opportunity to smoke again.”
Editing by Andrew Dobbie