Austria: Parliament votes against smoking ban in pubs and restaurants

The Austrian parliament has scrapped a smoking ban in bars and restaurants that was scheduled to come into force in May. The ruling coalition of the conservative People’s party and the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ) overturned a ban, which was introduced by the previous government. The abolition was a key pledge made in last year’s election campaign by the leader of the FPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache, who is now the vice-chancellor.

Strache argued that a ban would infringe on “freedom of choice” and that he wanted to protect restaurant and bar owners whose businesses would be affected.

While anti-smoking campaigners talk now of Austria as the “ashtray of Europe”, pub owners and breweries welcome the decision, the latter behind closed doors because of the negative publicity of such a statement.

When other European countries imposed a smoking ban earlier, on-trade sales of beer and other beverages shrank by as much as 20% in the short term to recover slightly later.

Austria has the third highest proportion of smokers in the European Union - 30% of people over 15 are smokers – and the second highest per capita consumption of beer. The average Austrian consumed 106.1 liters of beer (including non-alcoholic beers) last year and the overall consumption of beer in Austria increased by 1.7% to about 9.7 million hectoliters mainly due to an increase in exports and an increase in population.

Exports of beer went up in 2017 by 18.2% (+175,000 hl, including non-alcoholic beer), while domestic consumption remained practically unchanged at around 8.5 million hl (-14,000 hl or -0.2%, including non-alcoholic beer. There are currently 272 operating breweries in Austria thereof 145 commercial and 127 pub breweries .

Sigi Menz, chairman of the Association of Breweries in Austria , is proud that the alpine republic has already surpassed its much bigger neighbor Germany in beer consumption:  "At 106.1 liters per capita and year, we have already left behind our neighbors by a few pints, who currently have an estimated consumption of 102 liters per year."

Still, he is concerned about the high taxation of beer: "This is quite extraordinary: Austria's brewers are taxed much higher than their German neighbors and can still increase the lead." Maybe smoking in bars and restaurants marks the difference?

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