ATHENS—When Katerina Dervenioti decided in 2013 to open a bar in central Athens, she was sure of one thing: there would be no smoking. She had always disliked it, and after all the government had passed a law banning smoking in interiors back in 2009.
It took only a few hours after opening her cafe in a trendy Athens neighborhood to be sure of a second thing: Greeks believe rules are meant to be broken.
Despite the law, patrons at her vintage-inspired spot lighted up without a thought. She removed ashtrays, added signs and spoke to customers directly, but it was futile. Customers now smoke all they want, she said, starting early in the morning with coffee and ending late at night with a cocktail.
In Greece, star athletes celebrate championships with cigarettes dangling from their lips—star center Ioannis Bourousis of the Panathinaikos basketball team was seen toking on a cigar at a bouzouki bar after a big win in June.
Taxi drivers smoke while driving, holding their cigarettes out an open window only when they have passengers.
On a recent visit by Amin Mohamed to the local municipality office to take care of paperwork for his dry-cleaning business, the smoke was so thick that he finally asked the employee there to put out his cigarette. The employee simply opened a window and kept on smoking, he said.
“Nothing will ever change,” Mr. Mohamed said.
An ashtray next to a no-smoking sign at a bar in Athens.Photo: Nektaria Stamouli/The Wall Street Journal
Deputy Health Minister Pavlos Polakis blithely flouted the ban, lighting up while giving a press conference last year. At the Finance Ministry, smokers recently puffed away in a hallway under a large banner reading “Greece stubs out cigarettes.”
And in October, at a lunch at the army officers club in Thessaloniki celebrating Greece’s national holiday, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos lighted up a small cigar. The city’s mayor, and much of the room, joined him.
About 37% of Greeks smoke, the highest percentage in Europe, compared with an EU average of 26%, according to a 2016 EU survey. In the poll, seven years after the ban, 87% of Greeks said they had been exposed to indoor smoking in bars.
‘This cannot be enforced—no laws are enforced in Greece,’ one cafe owner said. Above, an Athens bar.Photo: Nektaria Stamouli/The Wall Street Journal
Last year, Greece’s Parliament added to the smoking regulations by passing a ban on electronic-cigarette smoking in public places. During the debate, some lawmakers noted the irony of passing a new law in a chamber that ignores the original one.
“Meeting room, parties’ offices, secretariats, walkways, toilets—the cigarettes are everywhere,” said center-right parliamentarian Niki Kerameos. “If we don’t set an example of following the laws, how do we expect citizens to do so?”
Many Greeks see the state as corrupt and unreliable—mainly shown by a widespread refusal to pay taxes. They also don’t like controls on day-to-day behavior: cars don’t stop at pedestrian crossings, motorcycles don’t bother with lanes, trash is tossed out of moving vehicles. Double parking is notorious—oddly, one of the rules Greeks do obey is the “basket in the street” signal that a neighbor is saving a parking space, and the basket goes untouched.
As the country grapples with a seven-year economic downturn, enforcement of all types of infractions is haphazard. Budget cuts have reduced by two-thirds the number of wardens who hand out traffic tickets and other fines, including for smoking, in the Attica region, which includes Athens. Municipal police, who can also issue fines, have been downsized. A telephone hotline that people can use to call the Health Ministry to complain about smoking violations is rarely answered.
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Officers have been waiting for months for the blocks of tickets used to issue smoking fines to be delivered from the printers.
“This cannot be enforced—no laws are enforced in Greece,” said Menios Stergiou, owner of an all-day cafe-bar near downtown Athens. “One has to have respect for the state, but this is the worst possible period for Greeks to do so.”
Health Minister Andreas Xanthos conceded that the smoking regulations hadn’t been implemented. “What we need is to give the feeling that we are restarting,” he said to Parliament on May 31, International No Tobacco Day.
The threat of fines on businesses of as much as €10,000, or about $11,300, haven’t been a deterrent. (Individuals also face fines from €50 to €3,000, depending on the circumstances.) Actually collecting the payments is difficult.
At the beginning of the economic downturn, when the ban was first passed and inspections were more common, business owners got creative. Ashtrays disappeared from tables; instead, small cups or vases were placed next to no-smoking signs. If inspectors noticed customers crushing out cigarettes in them, well, the individuals were just disobeying the rules.
“The businessmen’s imagination is never so vivid as when it comes to finding ways to break the law,” said Andreas Varelas, Athens’s vice mayor. “Rule-breaking is in Greeks’ nature.”
A new incentive to reduce smoking could be fresh taxes on cigarettes that started in January, making the habit even more costly. “Sin” taxes slapped on cigarettes as part of the conditions for Greece to receive bailout funds from its EU creditors have driven the cost of a pack of 20 cigarettes to about €4.50, a euro more than before the crisis. This means that a regular smoker can spend more than €100 a month on the habit, a hefty cost given that Greek monthly salaries average about €700.
In May, the new ticket books were delivered to inspectors, and police said they plan a new enforcement push after the summer, when revelers move back indoors.
Mr. Varelas, the vice mayor of Athens, said that if businesses receive enough fines, they will fall in line. According to the legislation, a bar or restaurant can lose its license the third time it receives a smoking fine.
‘If I couldn’t smoke with my drink, I would rather stay home,’ one woman said. Above, an Athens bar.Photo: Nektaria Stamouli/The Wall Street Journal
“I’m afraid we will see many companies changing names after the second fine in order to avoid” being shut down, he said.
Mairi Margioli, a 50-year-old saleswoman at a clothing store, smokes nearly three packs a day and had a cigarette planted firmly between her fingers as she helped customers with dresses and accessories.
She said she especially insists on being able to light up at a restaurant. “If I couldn’t smoke with my drink, I would rather stay home,” she said. If anyone complains, she said she simply goes to a different venue.
That’s a cause for alarm for Ms. Dervenioti, the cafe owner, who said she works the morning shift to avoid the thick smoke in the evening, when the bar is more crowded.
Now, she worries the bar would suffer if the government starts cracking down. For certain smokers, “the habit is part of their DNA,” she said. “If they are not allowed to light up while having a drink, they’ll stay at home.”