While many European countries have imposed smoking bans in bars and restaurants, Austria, afraid of hurting businesses, has so far resisted legislation preventing people lighting up where they please.
After a six-month break, the ruling Social Democrats and conservatives returned to the negotiating table this week to discuss a no-smoking policy in public places, an issue that has deeply divided politicians.
AdvertisementConservative Health Minister Andrea Kdolsky and the Social Democrats want to protect non-smokers without hurting businesses, while the environmental Greens and trade unions are calling for a total ban.
A compromise deal, due to be presented in mid-May, suggests that all pubs, cafes and restaurants have a sectioned-off area for non-smokers, unless they are protected property or safety requirements make it impossible.
A new piece of legislation introduced at the beginning of the year required any place of 75 square metres (807 square feet) or more to offer a non-smoking area, while smaller businesses could choose whether or not to serve smokers.
"We cannot overly regulate. A total ban would cause problems," Kdolsky's chief of staff Michael Kloibmueller said, referring to claims that it would infringe on businesses' rights, an argument used by a German court to relax a total ban on one-room bars.
But coffee-shop owners have taken up arms, saying they are defending local culture.
According to Anton Herzmaier, president of the Austrian association of restaurant owners, installing a partition would not only be impossible but also too pricey for 13,000 businesses.
"The market must regulate itself. Customers will choose if they want to go to a smoking or non-smoking cafe," said Thomas Wolf, of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (WKOe).
Austrians are among the biggest smokers in western and central Europe with 47 percent of adults lighting up on a regular basis.
According to health ministry estimates, between 12,000 and 14,000 deaths every year are related to smoking in a country of 8.3 million people -- or as many as one in six people, compared to one in seven in Germany or one in nine in France.
In a World Health Organisation table on anti-smoking policies in Europe, Austria ranked 26th out of 30.
For anti-smoking activists, politicians are to blame.
"The minister is under the influence of tobacco interests. The last legislation was a joke," said Manfred Neuberger, a professor at Vienna University's medical faculty and vice-president of the anti-smoking association Aerzteinitiative.
The organisation recently accused Kdolsky of being a mouthpiece for cigarette makers.
But Kloibmueller countered: "We are grateful for every study, whatever their source."
The WKOe says a radical anti-smoking policy would suppress 12,000 jobs but a US study showed such measures had no effect on business or jobs.
In a February survey by the Austrian polling institute Market, two thirds of employees in the catering business said they were afraid to lose their job if a smoking ban was put in place.
The European Commission is expected to announce new measures to protect bar and restaurant employees by late 2008.