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Separating Spain from its smokes

Lighting up is part of the national identity, but a new law limits places where it can be done.

Published February 19, 2006

YECLA, Spain - The people of this small, industrial city pack into La Bodega at nights and on the weekends and do things that would make an American doctor cringe.

They eat pork rinds with wild abandon. They gulp glasses of thick red wine. And they smoke.

Oh, how they smoke.

After sitting in the bar for a few hours, it's difficult not to feel as though you have a slightly oily, yellow-tinged film covering your skin.

Like all of the tiny bars across Spain, La Bodega allows its patrons to light up. The very suggestion of a "No Smoking" area would be met with a raised eyebrow, or a hearty laugh. Such restrictions on personal vices are the misfortune of places such as the United States - at least until recently, anyway.

On Jan. 1, Spain banned smoking in public places: banks, offices, big restaurants, covered bull-fighting rings, the usual. Among the strictest in Europe, the new laws have riled the country like few other issues. The government's decision to pull troops out of Iraq and to allow same-sex marriage didn't fire up Spaniards as much as taking away their tobacco.

Bars like La Bodega - less than 1,100 square feet - can choose whether to allow customers to smoke. Most have chosen to allow it, placing signs that proclaim "Se Permite Fumar" ("It is permitted to smoke") on the door. (Oddly, besides the bank, a chocolate store and the supermarket, the only place in Yecla where one can't light up is at the tobacco shop.)

Yet Spain's health minister recently said that if enough bars and other small establishments don't elect to be smoke free within a year - and the number of smokers nationwide doesn't drop significantly - further restrictions on smoking will follow. This worries people like Antonio Garcia, the owner of La Bodega.

"I think this is the beginning," sighed Garcia. "The government is cutting out the bad things."

But it's the naughty things that many say define Spanish culture.

"With our lifestyle, smoking and drinking and having fun is our identity," said Alvaro Garrido, a Spanish economist who is also the director of Prohibido Prohibir (Prohibited to Prohibit), a group that has fought the new law.

"For us, we think this law is not an antitobacco law, it is an antismoker law and it goes against the Spanish culture. And tobacco is in our culture from a long time."

Very true.

Christopher Columbus brought tobacco to Spain from Cuba more than 500 years ago. Ever since then, Spaniards have carried on a love affair with the cigarette - painter Pablo Picasso smoked filterless Gauloises, Salvador Dali painted his self-portrait with a pipe in his mouth, and international crooner Julio Iglesias smoked, at least until he moved to Miami in the '90s.

This is a country where - at least until Jan. 1 - folks smoked while in the supermarket, while riding on trains and while conducting interviews on television.

Even Spain's current Socialist president, Jose Zapatero Rodriguez, smokes. Newspaper columnists took him to task recently for "smoking up a storm" during particularly intense talks with a fellow politician; it seems that Zapatero himself violated his new law by smoking in the workplace. (His brand, reportedly, is the Spanish-made Ducados).

The country has Europe's second-highest smoking rate, behind Greece. About 50,000 people die each year due to smoking-related diseases, a well-known fact that was one of the driving forces behind the ban.

Spain isn't the only European country to change smoking laws. Last week, the British lower house of Parliament banned smoking in public places, including pubs and restaurants. Italy passed similar laws earlier this year, Ireland in 2004.

The Spanish law requires restaurants larger than 1,100 square feet to carve out a no smoking area. And many lament the fact that office workers must go outside to light up.

In the first month of the new law, 300,000 Spaniards called a government-created smoking hotline to ask how to quit. Others called with questions: Can I smoke in a sex shop? In a brothel? Can I smoke marijuana where cigarette smoking is prohibited?

But behind the odd questions, something else is at play: the Spanish way of life. For years, Spaniards have been able to drink freely in the streets, take two-hour siestas in the afternoon and go to the pub for a whiskey-laced shot and a smoke afterward. Smoking, much more than in the United States, is a social event.

And that is why folks feel under attack.

Garrido, the economist, feels that the very essence of being Spanish - leisurely lunches, drinking, smoking - is what draws tourists from all over the world. Why change that?

"It's creating problems where there weren't any," said Garrido.

Back at La Bodega, Garcia isn't quite so sure.

He has smoked since he was a teenager, and now, at 49, he's feeling the effects every morning in the form of phlegm and coughing attacks.

"I would like not to smoke," he says. "But it's very difficult to quit."

Now, it seems, he doesn't have much of a choice: The new law says that while his customers can smoke, he cannot, because it is his workplace.

So Garcia works in his bar each night, carving thin slices of jamon serrano, serving plates of fried fish and tumblers of whiskey. The smoke swirls around him, a yellow haze.

He worries that the government may eventually make all bars put in a ventilation system. And where would he put that, in his low-ceilinged, basement bar?

He also worries about the future. What will be banned next?

Spain's health minister, Elena Salgado, is considering the same question.

She said that she is considering banning drinking in the streets.

Tamara Lush can be reached at or 727 893-8612.

[Last modified February 19, 2006, 01:10:11]

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