by Nathan Morley
VIENNA, Oct. 17 (Xinhua) -- In Europe, Austria remains one of the last bastions of free, unhindered smoking, despite a plethora of legislation regarding tobacco in neighbouring countries.
In the eyes of many tourists, seeing customers incessantly puffing, creating a bluish-gray haze of smoke in the thriving cafes on the famous Herrengasse in Vienna, can be astonishing.
Austrians' passion for lighting-up has earned their country the moniker "ashtray of Europe". But it is now tiring of the bad reputation and has started to seek some changes.
A recent petition from the "Don't Smoke" campaign calling for a referendum on a ban on smoking in the catering and hospitality industry gained nearly 900,000 votes. Although more people are becoming aware of the health hazards, it seems unlikely that the government will take action.
"Austria was in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey as the only country, except for Slovakia and Indonesia, where smoking prevalence did not decrease," Dr. Manfred Neuberger, professor emeritus at the Medical University of Vienna, told Xinhua.
Neuberger is one of the leading campaigners pushing for a change in Austria's liberal smoking laws. He laments the high numbers of teenage and young smokers as being a "shame for the whole country" and charges that efforts to create a smoke-free environment is impeded by a lack of strong leadership at the highest levels.
In fact, the OECD report revealed that Austria, a country of just 8.8 million people, had the highest smoking prevalence of children aged 15, a position it has held since 1994 in a 2013 survey.
"Most 13 to 15 years-old purchase their cigarettes from tobacco shops, so there is no control. Many also buy them from vending machines," Neuberger said.
Everywhere you go in Vienna, the smell of wafting cigarette smoke is never far away. Neither are the ubiquitous coin-vending machines, which dispense cigarettes on street corners. At cafes, ashtrays are placed at every table.
In most cities -- from Salzburg to Vienna -- it remains culturally and socially acceptable to smoke in public places -- and even many shop and office workers have no qualms lighting-up indoors.
In March, lawmakers scrapped a plan to ban smoking in coffee houses and restaurants, despite public support. The legislation was shelved by the far-right Freedom party (FPO) during coalition talks with the People's Party earlier this year.
"This law was passed, but it was annulled again this year by the new government. So, this is the situation at the moment, but when 900,000 people sign a petition for a change, that is a lot for a small country. The government is standing by their reactionary policy to help to the tobacco industry," Neuberger says.
For their part, the FPO insists that a smoking ban would be an intrusion on individual liberty and would hurt trade at bistros, bars and cafes. In contrast, anti-smoking campaigners charge that such claims are ludicrous and point to Ireland a country with a strong pub culture that introduced legislation and enjoyed almost complete compliance.
"The reason is of course that the politicians listen to the lobbyists of the tobacco and hospitality industry -- and the tobacconists are a very powerful lobby. So, they don't listen to scientists, especially their own scientists from Austria," Neuberger added.
Many older Austrians cling to the idea that drinking, eating, and smoking is part of an age-out culture, especially in Vienna's famous coffee houses, even though most other European countries have long passed smoking legislation.
Authorities in Italy, France, and England say bans on lighting-up have significantly reduced consumption in recent years by forcing smokers outdoors.
Despite that, Neuberger feels Austria is stuck in a strange limbo on the issue.
"We asked some scientists from abroad and made a public hearing, with scientists from California, Australia and so on. They told the government what would be necessary and what has to be done, but they were ignored," he said.
Smoking is responsible for 16 percent of deaths in Austria, including 230 deaths a year from passive smoking. Men who smoke have a life expectancy cut by an average of 7.5 years, and women by 6.3 years.
"This is a situation that has to change, sooner or later," Neuberger said.
It is estimated that every year cigarettes kill 7 million people globally, more than tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS combined.