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Prague: When the Smoke Clears

by Courtney Miceli

posted on January 13, 2020

Photo Courtesy: iStock/AntonioGuille

Engulfed in a lingering cloud of fog, I look at my boyfriend with an uncertain expression. “What?” he says with a laugh. He flicks his cigarette in an ashtray as the waiter slams two heaping plates of goulash on our table; this was our first meal in Prague.

After jumping around the continent for two months, we had finally reached the Czech Republic. My boyfriend was born here, but hadn’t been back since he was 12 years old, and was eager to dive headfirst into an indulgent week of drinking beer and eating deliciously-rich food. We walked through the doors of a popular bar called Lokál Dlouhááá, famous for its Czech pub grub and lively atmosphere. It was Friday night and the place was jam-packed with locals and tourists alike. Finally, we managed to get the attention of a waitress who asked us, “Smoking or non-smoking?” My boyfriend, a daily smoker who typically doesn’t exercise his habit indoors, shot me a cheeky look and replied, “Smoking.”

Unbeknownst to us, there wasn’t much of a distinction: The smoking and non-smoking sections were separated by nothing more than an imaginary line, so the entire bar was hazy. My boyfriend whipped out his pack and offered me one. I don’t smoke regularly, but on occasion — and especially while travelling — I’ll indulge. Maybe I’ve watched too many Hollywood flicks, but there’s something awfully alluring about rolling your own dose of tobacco under the Bohemian skies, or drawing from a Marlboro on the cobblestone streets of Europe. This romanticism, I notice, is heightened for my boyfriend when he’s told he can smoke inside; something that’s prohibited and even considered quite immoral in the all-too polite Canadian society that we were raised in. We’ve been taught that the risk — health-wise — isn’t worth it, but in the pleasure of the moment, we couldn’t care less.

(Photo Courtesy: iStock/South_agency)

At the time of our trip, in 2016, Czech Republic was one of the last remaining EU nations that was tolerant of smoking inside public areas. That was, until World No Tobacco Day in May 2017, when Czechia joined countries like Ireland, Hungary, and Spain, by putting in place a comprehensive ban on indoor cigarette consumption. (Other EU countries, like Portugal, Austria and Croatia have partial bans in place, often meaning that it’s up to the discretion of individual business owners as to whether they want to allow smoking inside their establishment.)

In Prague, and other parts of the country, this heavily-debated change caused quite a stir, with many restaurant and bar owners fearing they’d see a loss in business. For a nation that boasts the world’s highest beer consumption per capita, eliminating the cigarette from the popular social duo of smoke and drink was unimaginable to some, who worked vigorously to appeal the new law. Some citizens also worried that their neighborhoods would grow louder at night, with barflies shuffling into the streets to smoke outside.

But, despite 28-percent of Czech citizens being regular smokers, data collected by Charles University and the Ipsos polling agency shows that 71-percent of the country said they were actually in favor of the indoor smoking ban. The government initially put the ban in place to combat high numbers of smoking-related illnesses and deaths across the nation. And, so far, it seems to be working. According to Czech Republic’s Institute of Health Information and Statistics, in the five months following the ban, the number of smoking-related hospitalizations dropped by nearly 10,000.

Business owners too — many of whom feared the economic implications of a ban — can also ease their nerves because, since being forced to air out, researchers found that Czechs now visit restaurants and bars more frequently, perhaps because they can now welcome non-smokers and families with children that may have been hesitant to visit in the past.

(Photo Courtesy: iStock/skynesher)

Concerns are common at the start of a cigarette ban, and although not always realistic, they are understandable. After all, until recent history, smoking inside taverns, cafes, and other public settings was the norm for most of the world; a means of doing business and socializing that’s been ingrained in many cultures. Of the many places I myself have travelled, remnants of this old-world habit can still be seen thriving — in the train stations of rural China, the restaurants of small-town Vietnam, and the cafes of coastal Croatia, to name a few. But, as smoking bans grip the minds of global governments, these alluring pockets of indulgence are increasingly pushed to the fringes of society and become more and more of a rarity to find — which perhaps, makes them that much more special.

While of course there are times when I’m sure we all long for the simpler, carefree days of a pre-smoking ban world, the global consciousness is evolving into healthier, more sustainable state, and it’s important for cultures to keep up, no matter how bitter the process may feel.

By the time my boyfriend and I were four bites into our long-awaited supper, we were having a hard time enjoying what we knew was a delicious meal. Although initially seduced by the novelty of smoking within the walls of a European alehouse, the dull scent of cigarette smoke overtook our food’s aroma and blanketed every flavor with a sooty aftertaste. As an outsider looking in, there’s something so beautifully satisfying about being absorbed in your guilty pleasure; but, times do change, and perhaps some traditions are better left to fizzle out.

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