Thank You for Smoking: Spanish Bars Flout the Ban

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Andres Kudacki / AP

A woman smokes inside a bar in Madrid on Jan. 2, 2011, the day after Spain's smoking ban went into effect

Fernando Tejedor never considered himself a rebel. For the past several years, he has quietly run the Bar Restaurante Spirit in Castellón, and never had the slightest interest in politics. But just days after Spain's new antismoking law went into effect, on Jan. 1, Tejedor, 43, has been catapulted to the head of a burgeoning movement. Pasting signs in his restaurant window, he has declared war: Smoking permitted.

On New Year's Day, Spain finally relinquished its status as one of Europe's last refuges for the smoker. A 2006 law had banned smoking in the workplace and required the creation of non-smoking sections in larger restaurants and bars, but because of ample loopholes and lax enforcement, it was largely ineffective. In fact, in the first three years of the law's existence, smoking among Spaniards actually increased 6.7%. But this new law means business. Not only does it ban smoking in all enclosed public spaces and even some open-air ones, it also prescribes fines for infractions, from $40 for individuals to as much as $13,000 for establishments that flout the law. Gone forever, it would seem, are those dark Spanish bars made hazy by the dense plumes emerging from countless cigarettes.

Just not in Castellón. Or San Pedro de Alcántara. Or Valencia. Ever since the law went into effect, a small but growing number of bars and restaurants have joined in open rebellion against it, blatantly encouraging smoking and collecting signatures to have the law appealed. José Eugenio Arias, owner of the Asadaor de Guadalmina, was the first to defy the prohibition. On Jan. 3, he hung posters around his restaurant in San Pedro de Alcántara, on Spain's southern coast, saying that smoking is allowed, and told Spanish television that he and other restaurant owners were going to "unite to fight this absurd law."

Tejedor, 500 miles (800 km) to the northeast in Castellón, was the first to join him. In a nation where 31.5% of the population smokes (often with a drink or snack in hand), the new restrictions, he worries, will imperil business. "Already, in the first days of the law, we saw a huge drop in our clientele," he says. "This is a question of survival. I don't smoke, but I have to protect those who do because I don't want to end up unemployed."

The rebellion is taking diverse forms. Some restaurant owners are launching petitions to get the law repealed. Other public facilities that have long welcomed cigarettes are trying to turn themselves into private smoking clubs, so that "members" will still be able to light up. (One kink to be worked out: the law prohibits employees from working in an environment — even someone's home — where they are subject to secondhand smoke. Which is why, in one community center in Reus, Catalonia, the servers stop at the threshold of the designated smoking-club room, and hand the drinks across the doorway.)

They're not the only ones thinking creatively. In order to lessen the economic impact of the ban, Hotel la Posada, in the Andalusian town of Montellano, has started offering a free drink to every client who has to get up from the table to smoke outside. And in Boiro, a town in the northwestern region of Galicia, the owner of the Bar Farmassia is serving his famous tripe stew — along with other tapas — in now useless ashtrays.

The most common form of resistance, however, appears to be passive. By Jan. 4, Spain's Federation of Consumers in Action had received more than 1,000 complaints from patrons about bars and restaurants that weren't complying with the ban. And even those that do fulfill the letter of the law may find a way around its spirit in the form of a good outdoor heater. Indeed, despite the chilly temperatures, clients seem to be taking with new fervor to sidewalk cafés and bars. The general manager of one leading company in the sector told Spanish news agency EFE that his firm's mushroom-shaped heaters were "practically sold out throughout the country."

But Tejedor and his comrades are choosing the more active form of resistance. On Friday, the bar of his restaurant was crowded at lunchtime, and nearly every client, he says, was puffing away. Inspectors from the Health Ministry had been in the day before, taking notes, but he has yet to be fined. Even if he is, though, he says he'll keep fighting. "This is about rights," he says. "Look in the constitution. As Spaniards, we have as much a right to smoke as not to smoke."