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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

German Smoking Ban Meets Disfavor

BERLIN -- When a German magazine ran a story about new efforts to ban public smoking, the reactions of many of its non-smoking readers were fierce -- and surprising.

"I don't want to be deprived of the relaxed company of smokers in restaurants and bars," wrote David Harnasch of Freiburg in a letter to Der Spiegel weekly. "If my clothes stink of smoke, I can wash them -- where exactly is the problem?"

Yvonne Deim from Munich wrote: "Sitting in a smoke-filled room for a few hours bothers me less than it would if smokers were forced to get up every few minutes to go smoke outside."

Governments across Europe are cracking down on smoking in public places. But resistance to new limits is strong in Germany, where the right to smoke became a cherished mark of tolerance and freedom after World War II.

Polls show a majority of the population and one in two non-smokers opposed a proposed ban on smoking in restaurants and bars.

Some politicians have said the proposals are too draconian, and Germany's powerful cigarette, restaurant and hotel lobbies are working to ensure they never see the light of day.

Der Spiegel made clear where it stood by putting a picture of a broken cigarette on its cover alongside the title "Smoking -- The End of Tolerance."

Lother Binding, a member of the parliament and a former smoker, stoked the debate by pressing for a new law that would ban smoking in all public places. Binding, 56, said he felt compelled to press for stricter laws after reading a study from the Heidelberg-based German Cancer Research Center, which laid out in stark terms the dangers of "passive smoking," or second-hand smoke.

Nearly one in three German adults smokes regularly, and close to 140,000 Germans die every year from tobacco-related illnesses -- far more than from traffic accidents, alcohol, drugs and AIDS combined. Some studies estimate that 3,000 to 4,000 deaths per year can be attributed to passive smoking. Binding's proposed ban is designed to cut those numbers and bring German law into line with many of its European partners.

Ireland imposed the world's first nationwide public smoking ban to 2004. Italy, Sweden, Scotland, Norway and Spain have followed suit in varying degrees. Belgium, Britain, Northern Ireland and Portugal are expected to introduce tight new rules next year.

But Binding faces a particularly daunting challenge in Germany, where tobacco taxes bring in over 14 billion euros ($17.6 billion) annually and where the political class is dominated by men and women of the "1968 generation" who fondly associate smoking with notions of freedom and risk.

Germany is the only country in the European Union that has ignored and actively fought a bloc ban on tobacco advertising.

German officials resisted imposing a smoking ban at World Cup matches this summer, even though such a ban existed at the 2002 tournament and is already planned for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The German railway operator Deutsche Bahn is one of the last in Europe to allow smoking on its trains. Over 600,000 outdoor cigarette vending machines sit on German streets, allowing people of all ages to buy packs 24 hours a day in a country where normal store hours are regulated.

Robert Proctor, author of the book "The Nazi War on Cancer," says one reason the German anti-smoking movement is so weak is that it is tainted by the Nazis' hostility to smoking.

The Luftwaffe banned smoking in 1938 and a year later SS chief Heinrich Himmler did the same for all uniformed police and SS officers. Under the Nazis, smoking was barred in many workplaces, government offices, hospitals and rest homes.

Hitler, who didn't touch tobacco or alcohol, gave 100,000 Reichsmarks of his own money in 1941 to the world's first institute dedicated to the dangers of tobacco. Led by avid anti-smoker and anti-Semite Karl Astel, the institute produced the first comprehensive study linking smoking and lung cancer.

"After the war, the tobacco industry capitalized on the Nazi connection -- the idea that if Hitler did it then it must be terrible," Proctor said. "The anti-smoking movement in Germany was portrayed as intolerant and essentially fascist."

German per capita consumption of tobacco dropped by more than half between 1940 and 1950. But under the Marshall Plan, $1 billion of excess U.S. tobacco was shipped to Germany and smoking rates soon rose back to pre-war levels as lighting up became linked to new values of tolerance and freedom.

The tobacco industry still benefits from these associations.