Swiss air gets a little cleaner with today’s smoking ban

May 1, 2010, 6 Comments

When I first started visiting Switzerland ten years ago, every train carriage had a dividing wall a third of the way along: the smaller part was for smokers, the larger for non-smokers. Invariably two-thirds of the carriage was packed, with many people only sitting in the smoky third when there was no other choice. The division of the carriages was a typically Swiss compromise, reflecting the fact that around a third of Swiss people smoke, but it eventually disappeared in December 2005 when smoking was banned on Swiss public transport. The odd thing was that German trains, which travel in and across Switzerland every day, didn’t ban smoking until September 2007. For those 21 months, smoking in the smoking compartment of a German train wasn’t allowed while on Swiss soil, leading to border announcements of a very unusual kind.

Change often doesn’t come quickly in Switzerland, so that while countries all across Europe have been banning smoking indoors, it has taken until today for that to happen here, at least on a national level. Until now each canton has chosen for itself whether or not to ban smoking (how very Swiss), with Ticino being the first back in 2005. It was confusing to say the least, especially as cantonal borders are not straight lines, so smokers could light up in one village but get fined for doing that a few metres down the road. Canton Bern introduced its ban last July, so I forget that others have been more backward. Just last week I was rather shocked to be in a Zürich restaurant that still had smokers puffing away next to me while I ate. Even today, with a national ban, there are cantonal differences: some have a total ban, others permit enclosed smoking rooms or ‘fumoirs’, others still can have smoking bars as long as they are less than 80 sq meters in size. It’s about as clear as a dirty ashtray.

Smokers in Switzerland make up 29% of the population, compared to only 21% in the UK and US. I think the Swiss figure is still so high not because smoking hasn’t been banned, but because it is still so accessible. Cigarettes are relatively cheap (a packet of Marlboro is 7 francs or about £4) and can be bought from vending machines, where they sit alongside Twix bars, Coke bottles and packets of gum. Even more bizarre is that they are still advertised, as this one from yesterday’s paper shows:

Almost every Swiss village and train station has a kiosk, imaginatively called ‘Kiosk’, which sells magazines, sweets and overpriced drinks. And cigarettes. The packets behind the till always remind me of marshalled rows of gravestones in a war cemetery with the names of the dead clearly visible: Captain Marlboro, Corporal Rothman, Privates Benson and Hedges. Of course, these days the packets look even more funereal with those stark black health warnings. In Switzerland the warnings take up even more room as they, like almost everything official, have to be in three languages: German, French and Italian. If the packet just has the basic ‘Smoking Kills’ warning, it’s not too bad when trilingually translated – Rauchen ist tödlich, Fumer tue, and Il fumo uccide. You still get the deadly message. But then there are packets with the text-heavy version (as shown in the ad above), ‘Smoking seriously harms you and others around you’, which is unwieldy in one language, let alone three – Rauchen fügt Ihnen und den Menschen in Ihrer Umgebung erheblichen Schaden zu, Fumer nuit gravement à votre santé et à celle de votre entourage, Il fumo danneggia gravemente te e chi ti sta intorno. By the time you’ve read all that, you’ll probably have lost the will to live, let alone to have a smoke. Perhaps that’s the real reason why the warnings are becoming pictorial – a photo of a diseased lung is the same in any language.

6 Comments on "Swiss air gets a little cleaner with today’s smoking ban"

  1. Kathy Sunday May 2nd, 2010 at 07:08 PM · Reply

    I am really looking forward to be able to enjoy going out again. I’d love to see a a report next year showing that restaurant and bar receipts are actually up, contrary to their owners’ fears.

    I wonder if the ban covers restaurant and bar terraces, as well as sidewalk seating in front of restaurants? Guess we’ll find out soon enough.

    • swisswatching Sunday May 2nd, 2010 at 08:13 PM · Reply

      After Bern banned it last July, it was so lovely to go out and not get a mouthful of smoke with my food. Welcome to civilisation, Zurich! And yes, I’d love the doom merchants to be wrong, as they were in Italy five years ago. As far as I know, Kathy, the ban is only indoors so terraces aren’t covered. Here in Bern there are lots of covered passages between the main shopping streets and you’re allowed to smoke at ‘outdoor’ tables there even though they’re as good as indoors.

  2. Katharina Thursday November 18th, 2010 at 04:11 AM · Reply

    well… reminds me of California (my home)…where some of that stuff is now being retracted. for a very simple reason: too many people going postal over it.
    i also would like to pint out, that we are talking public places. it is not an illegale activity to consume tobacco per se. just not in public places. small diference that is not clear in your article and the way this is represented in swiss media more generally.

    the entire approach is backwards, because they do not tackle the real issue of adiction. you want them to stop smoking, you need to look athe causes for their addiction.
    instead, they enforce a ban and put them on prescription drugs like Chantix. you can google the effects for that and compare it with the icrease of suicides, domestic violence and public violence. if they wait half a century to implement what we had here then, please, also look at the statistics….

    as to the trains…..that was back when there was no air condition…so it actually was more pleasant to ride in the smoking section. at least you knew what the smell was.

    anyway. mentioning air condition on the other hand is haeresy in switzerland. 🙂

  3. Gerald Wednesday October 26th, 2011 at 10:14 PM · Reply

    Thank you for this well-researched article.
    About time that nations famed for their cleanliness banned this filthy, anti-social habit. Has just one smoker ever considered the damage they do to themselves, but more especially to others? They should have to attend the post-mortems I conduct daily and have a peek inside the lungs of deceased smokers.
    By the way, where on earth was ‘Katharina’ educated? Her English grammar, spelling and punctuation are deplorable.
    However, give me an illiterate Californian rather than a Swiss smoker any day.

  4. norbert Friday June 30th, 2017 at 11:09 PM · Reply

    really selfish with no understanding for smokers you better try i do not smoke weat for your narrow brain

  5. Koro Thursday August 17th, 2017 at 12:27 AM · Reply

    7 years after, I must say the smoking ban is not really enfor,ced:
    – Smoking is allowed in all underground parkings
    – Smoking is allowed in train stations, even inside (they consider that high roofs mean outside)
    – There are hotels, claiming to be 100% non smoking. This means rooms are non-smoking, but the receptionist may still smoke in his office at the reception
    – You cannot smoke inside restaurants, but you can still smoke at the fully covered terrasse, with open windows to the inside.
    – Taxi drivers cannot smoke when there are customers, but they can still smoke before and after taking a customer
    – In shops, it is usual for people to smoke in the warehouse
    – Marijuana is illegal, but you can hardly walk more than 5minutes along the rhein in Basel, without smelling it. You can even see people smoking cannabis, while driving
    – Throwing papers in the street is illegal, but cigarettes or packaging is tolerated, even police sometimes do it, while driving their car.

    Smoking in Switzerland is terrible. The only way to get clean air is to get away from people, which is a pity for such a nice country.

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