Austria’s Far Right Wants the Freedom to Smoke

But it also fits neatly with the Freedom Party’s anti-establishment and quasi-libertarian tilt. “Freedom of choice” is the flip side of a far-right agenda that otherwise seems inclined to dictate to citizens, especially those from minorities, everything from whether they can wear head coverings to whom they should marry.

The push to upend the smoking ban has stirred more than the usual consternation.

Although the European Union does not impose regulations on smoke-free environments, it has made a set of recommendations that has led many members to introduce strict bans on smoking in public places in recent years.

Austria’s Far Right Wants the Freedom to Smoke
Austria’s Far Right Wants the Freedom to Smoke

Austria has one of the highest smoking rates among adults in the European Union, and was one of only two member states where the number of adults who smoked regularly did not decrease from 2000 to 2015, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


The owner of Café Fürth, Helmut Haller, said he followed trends in the United States, Australia and Britain and had never allowed smoking.Credit Akos Stiller for The New York Times

Thomas Szekeres, the president of the Vienna Medical Association, appeared baffled during an interview in his office. Banning indoor smoking, he said, was not an attempt to single out smokers but a move against “smoking and harming the health of people.”

“People need an example to see what happens when you smoke and that it could happen to them, too,” he said.

Mr. Szekeres has been one of the high-profile backers of the “Don’t Smoke” campaign and has promoted a petition asking the government to think again. It gathered more than 500,000 signatures in the month that followed, in a country of about 8.8 million.

“We want to show the politicians responsible that the people are in favor of a ban on smoking,” Mr. Szekeres said.

The conflicting public currents around the smoking ban have intensified scrutiny of the Freedom Party, which was founded partly by former Nazis after World War II, and what it might do now that it has entered government.

Last December, when Mr. Strache’s party received key portfolios in Austria’s new government, an article in the German weekly “Die Zeit” commented: “They don’t want to bite, just to smoke,” referring to the proverb that barking dogs don’t bite.

The motto Mr. Strache has repeated since he floated the idea of overturning the ban during last year’s election campaign is “freedom of choice instead of forceful state regulation.” Responsible citizens, he has said, must be able to make these choices themselves.

Kannst nicht erfinden.

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On social media, in between anti-immigrant and nationalistic messages, his party also championed bread-and-butter causes.

Its former presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, called for “higher tax on motorways for foreigners,” and a regional politician, Gottfried Waldhäusl, promoted “freedom of choice” with a picture of a cup of coffee beside a burning cigarette.


The owners of Café Hummel, a family business, invested thousands of euros in separating smoking and nonsmoking areas. But last year they made the cafe fully nonsmoking.Credit Akos Stiller for The New York Times

“It’s a policy which in a certain way is not suspicious of being traditionally right-wing,” said Anton Pelinka, a professor of political science at the Central European University in Budapest. “It’s a fight against the new enemy, which is called political correctness.”

The bill that is scheduled to go before parliament is based on the “Berlin model,” named after the German capital, which prohibits smoking in most public places but allows it in smaller establishments and in designated areas.

It includes protective steps like increasing the minimum age for smoking from 16 to 18 and is due to go in front of the country’s Parliament this week.

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Unlike in other capitals of Western Europe, in Vienna smoking remains widespread. Not only is the sight of smoking rooms in bars and restaurants common, cigarettes are easily purchased from vending machines in the streets.

Last December, Mr. Strache appeared at a gathering of restaurant owners in a smoke-filled wine bar near Austria’s Parliament. The rally, hosted by the bar’s owner, Heinz Pollischansky, carried the message that restaurant and bar owners opposed the ban.

But Vienna’s gastronomy scene is split over the question. The famous coffee houses on the city’s tourist trail have already banned smoking, in anticipation of this year’s deadline.

Others, like Café Hummel, a family business, have invested thousands of euros in separating smoking and nonsmoking areas — and paid fines after complaints from nonsmoking guests for failing to contain the smoke.

Christine Hummel, the manager, is the third generation in her family at the helm of this classic Viennese establishment. “We’ve been here since 1935, and since 1935 it was smoking,” said Ms. Hummel, who is not a regular smoker but enjoys a cigarette with a glass of wine.

Last year, Ms. Hummel had enough of the complaints and fines and declared her cafe fully nonsmoking. She said she immediately lost many regulars, about 5 percent of the annual clientele, and others cut back on orders. But the decision allowed her to turn to a new clientele.


“It’s like a reward for waking up early”: smokers at Café Europa, in central Vienna.Credit Akos Stiller for The New York Times

“Times change,” she said. “We have to look toward the future.”

A sign of those changing times is Café Fürth, a small venue that shares its central space with two offices and its own coffee roasting operation.

The owner, Helmut Haller, 30, was on his day off, trying out a new coffee machine and a concoction of iced espresso with blood-orange lemonade. A far cry from the classical coffeehouse proprietor, Mr. Haller said he followed trends in the United States, Australia and Britain and never allowed smoking.

“Global coffee culture is a nonsmoking culture,” he said.

Still, he said he placed his business in the Viennese cafe tradition, which provided a meeting point for great figures of fine arts, literature and philosophy.

“In Austria we’re slower with change,” he said of his country’s position between Germany and the Balkans.

He said that both some residents and visitors had their minds set on a certain idea of Vienna, described with the German word “Gemütlichkeit,” which translates as a broad feeling of comfort or cosiness.

But even many smokers who enjoy a chance to light up see in the ban an opportunity to set themselves free.

One was Philippe Mayer, a 41-year-old musician with blond dreadlocks who had settled into the dimly lit smoking room of Café Europa, in central Vienna, after dropping off his daughter at kindergarten.

“It’s like a reward for waking up early,” Mr. Mayer said. But even as he enjoyed his cigarette, he, like his country, had mixed feelings about it.

“Smoking gives me a kind of feeling like slavery,” he said. “It would be helpful if it were banned.”

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