Pozadí astronaut Brázda
Pozadí astronaut Brázda
Často hledáte, jak…

Respekt in English

Cigarettes Out, Rules In

Prague is cooking up a smoking ban that finally takes into account the Czech mentality.

Cigarety opět podraží. Ilustrační foto • Autor: HN, René Volfík
Cigarety opět podraží. Ilustrační foto • Autor: HN, René Volfík

There is an infamous Czech saying that goes, “If something doesn’t work even if you force it, use more force.” Nobody knows exactly when this advice became common currency, but most people assume it was during the bleak years of the centralized communist economy, when goods of poor quality poured into communist Czechoslovakia from other Eastern bloc countries.

Typically you would have a corkscrew that would not open a single bottle but would destroy the cork inside, or maybe a sofa with an underside compartment that would either not open or not close, so that the storage space or the sofa itself would be unusable. In most cases, people tried fixing them with a hammer, or brute force. Also typically, a Russian-made television would need a good punch to finally catch the signal, Romanian cars would need a huge kick to get the doors closed, and so on.

Old habits die hard. What was once true for everyday malfunctions now holds for an effort by the Czech health minister to force tobacco smoke out of public spaces. There have been several attempts over the last few years to ban smoking in restaurants, or institutions like schools or hospitals, without a success. Czech lawmakers have always thrown out draft laws amid arguments about personal freedom and the right of pub, café, and restaurant owners to make their own rules for their own property.

But those past legislative attempts were mild compared with what the minister now has in mind. Previous bills would have exempted bars and nightclubs from the smoking ban but could still not make it through the legislature. Now a total ban is on the table, with the only exceptions being open-air terraces or sidewalk patios. No smoking would be allowed at or near schools, hospitals, playgrounds, and kindergartens, on pain of heavy fines. The minister has decided to use even greater force where the previous great force didn’t work.

With good reason: for the first time, the prime minister and most members of parliament from the ruling coalition back a ban. But the measure has something else going for it – strictness. For with Czechs, and to some extent Poles and Hungarians, strictness is the right way.

That’s because during the long years of the communist era, we made an art and science of disobeying the rules, or at least bending them. You could see it in trivial gestures, like the shopkeepers who displayed the president’s picture in the window in order to deflect the prying eyes of police officers, or in the now-legendary advertisement in the largest Communist Party newspaper stating that a Mr. Ferdinand Vanek was celebrating his birthday, doing fine, and was wished well by all his friends and relatives. Thus the public learned that Mr. Vanek – aka the then-dissident and future President Vaclav Havel – had been released from prison.

That rebellious, damn-the-rules character long outlived the communist era, and it is no longer romantic or heroic. Consider an already-existing law that requires a non-smoking zone in every restaurant. It is a farce. In Belgium, the Netherlands, and other Western countries, that means separate rooms for smokers. But the Czechs consider a line on the floor sufficient. You can sit in a restaurant’s non-smoking area and stretch your arm into the smoking area to light a  cigarette, and you will be in compliance.

Hence strict rules might see to it that we, finally, learn our manners – that if you can’t smoke somewhere, you just can’t. I’m not saying this as a hard-core anti-smoking campaigner. On the contrary, I do light up occasionally. But there are lessons learned from other areas of life, like speed limits and drunk-driving laws. Until harsh measures and fines were introduced a few years ago, everyone broke them. Likewise, until painful penalties for fare-jumpers on public transport were introduced, everyone – including me – sometimes rode for free. Now it’s much less common to get on a bus without a ticket.

So strictness is the answer. And let’s hope it will be applied to other things, too, like corruption, embezzling public money, calls for tenders – and everybody will be happy.

Pokud jste v článku našli chybu, napište nám prosím na [email protected].