Surprised and Confused

You have to hand it to the Spanish for being passionate about everything they do, whether that is serving a coffee correctly, scoring a goal, or discussing where to go for the next drink. The latest outlet for their passion is the smoking ban, which, against all odds, is still in place and seems to be working.

According to Dionisio Lara, of the Spanish Service Industry Federation, Spaniards are ‘reasonably’ compliant with the ban, most of them taking to the streets- not in protest, but to light up outside at the terrazas, even in this month’s -3 degrees. It’s ok though, they won’t freeze to death- according to Metro television, local government is setting aside 100,000 euros to help restaurant and bar-owners with the cost of installing heaters, so that smokers can still smoke outside comfortably. Even local government is passionate about enforcing the new law, and at the same time passionate about protecting the rights of smokers. According to Lara, smokers have reacted in 3 different ways when told by bar owners to stop smoking: with ‘surprise’, ‘confusion’, and in some cases with bare-faced cheek, taking advantage of being asked to step outside by leaving without paying.  They are not being quite so compliant when it comes to health centres, where the new law bans smoking within 100m of the entrance. Madrid hospitals still provide a welcoming committee of staff and patients, shivering and smoking en masse around the doorways.

And yet the bars, the endless bars and clubs and restaurants which are the pulsing heart of this city, remain smoke-free, huddles of people indulging on the doorstep in the cold, but inside, clean air, floors no longer littered ankle-deep with fag ends, no danger of someone taking your eye out with a stray cigarette gripped carelessly like a poison dart at eyeball level, no more mysterious holes in your clothing, those tell-tale circular burns at the end of a night, in the favourite item of clothing, no more taste of smoke as you chew and try to savour your food. Of course, there are pockets of resistance, the right to kill yourself defended passionately as if it were a basic human right. In the local papers, photos of defiant clients at a bar on the outskirts of the city, fags held high for the camera on the premises, the owner’s declaration that he will pay the fine in order to protect the human rights of his customers, and if the ban is not lifted, or he is continually prosecuted, the promise that he will go on hunger strike.

So what fine will bar owners like him have to pay if clients smoke on their premises? Anything between the odd number of 601 euros and a whopping  100,000. If you are the culprit, the smoker, it is another matter,a s long as it’s a first or second offence. In this case, you will only have to pay 30 euros. However, if you are caught being naughty more than three times it is considered a serious offence and you pay the same as the bar owners: between 601 and 100,000 euros. Perhaps this explains the ‘reasonable’ compliance with the tough new laws.

And how is the situation being policed? Firstly, if you enter a bar or enclosed public space and someone is smoking, you can report it to the owner, then if nothing is done, you can fill in a complaint form and report them to the Health Ministry, and/or to the municipal police. Complaints are anonymous even if you report someone by name. This gives me wonderful, twisted visions of communist-style, police-state reprisals, back-stabbings and betrayals to the authorities. Revenge of the non-smoker! A purge, a purge on filthy smokers, or at least the ones you personally don’t like and happen to come across with the evidence burning between their fingers. I have been told that here ‘envidia es el deporte nacional’ (envy is the national sport) but I disagree: this could be said of any settlement where humans live together in close proximity. Even so, having attended ‘Comunidad’ meetings in my building, I can only imagine how many petty, personal dramas are currently being played out in local bars all over the country.

Outside bars, restaurants and health centres, what then, are the rules exactly? The reason the last ban feel flat on its face was because it was confusing and half-arsed.  This year’s ban is, in part, a revision of the last one, and a clarification. Perfectly clear, then? No smoking ‘…. In all enclosed spaces that may be shared with others.’, though there are exceptions: covered spaces where it is permitted and open spaces where it isn’t.

Enclosed spaces which are exempt include hotel rooms set aside for this purpose, and only 30% of total rooms can be designated smoking. And don’t even think of carrying your cigarette out into the corridor, lift or lobby. As exempt open spaces, where the ban is in place, there are educational or health complexes, playgrounds, courtyards, at the entrance to health centres, and around children’s play areas, so the mother who complained to me of not being able to watch over her child playing and have a smoke at the same time, will have to watch from a safe distance, or- shock, horror, refrain while her toddler is in the playground. You can do it on the beach, in the covered areas of boats, but not on top of double decker sight-seeing buses, as these are classed as urban transport.

And that pretty much sums it up. As resistance dies out, as police officers turn up and slap fines on everyone, as bar owners grumble and deal with ‘surprised’ and ‘confused’ customers, as fellow drinkers secretly report each other for lighting up, as you start to notice the particular fragrance of the place, whether that is bleach, floral scent, cleaning products, stale beer or farts, we all come home smelling fresh and clean, our clothes free of that diluted ashtray stench, so cloying and persistent, bar staff’s life expectancy about doubles, nicotine gum sales go through the roof, and smokers make new friendships in cold doorways and shared hardship, and that, surely, is something we can all be passionate about.

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