Dutch cafes, restaurants and coffee shops are bracing themselves for a feared exodus of patrons when a public smoking ban for the hospitality industry enters into force on Tuesday.
"It is clear that enterprises are awaiting the ban with dread: polls show that 60 percent are thinking of selling their businesses," said a recent statement from horecasite.nl -- claiming to be the Netherlands' biggest online retail agency for the hotel, restaurant and cafe (horeca) industry.
AdvertisementIt said there had been an increase by nearly a quarter in the number of enterprises up for sale -- from 1,350 in January to 1,600 in June.
"The ship is being abandoned before it is too late," said the site.
The notorious Dutch "coffee shop" faces a unique conundrum under the ban: its patrons can still light up their cannabis joints but no longer if blended with tobacco.
As The Netherlands follows the example of other European Union members in curbing smoking for public health reasons, it finds itself in a singular position as the only one to allow, since 1976, marijuana use in licensed cafes.
The smoking law does not prohibit cannabis use in coffee shops, but owners are having to come up with new strategies to stay afloat in a country where users traditionally prefer their dope mixed with tobacco.
As smokers fume at the legislation, their non-puffing counterparts are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of a night out in an unpolluted environment.
Activists on both sides of the fence quote vastly different statistics on the predicted outcome of the ban on smoking indoors and in enclosed spaces.
Contrary to predictions of doom from the hospitality industry, a study by the Dutch healthcare research bureau Nivel found the sector could attract as many as 800,000 new clients among asthma sufferers and non-smokers.
And a poll by the economic bureau of the Postbank found that smoking restaurant clients would simply be replaced by non-smokers.
"Eighteen percent said they would visit a cafe less regularly, while 20 percent said they would visit more often. Just under 45 percent said the ban would make no difference," it said in a statement.
But restaurant and bar owners remain unconvinced. A grouping under the banner "Save the small horeca enterprise" has lodged a legal challenge to the law, to be heard in the district court on Tuesday -- the day of ban enters into force.
"The smoking ban is an assault on social culture," said a website of the group, which claims the backing of 418 cafes in the civil action.
It cited as ominous a 10 percent drop in sales for restaurants and cafes at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, which introduced a smoking ban from January 1.
Pro-smoking lobby Forces Nederland describes the legislation as "un-Dutch" and patriarchal, saying enterprises should be allowed to be hospitable to all clients in equal measure.
"Owners of horeca enterprises must be able to decide for themselves who they allow onto their property," said a statement.
Smokers and libertarians are planning an array of protest actions.
A movie theatre in Rotterdam will hand out free cigarettes to its clients, allowing them to smoke up a storm for the last time on Monday while showing the film Coffee and Cigarettes.
Two Amsterdam book stores will give their clients a free cigar with every purchase, and several bars and restaurants are planning special smoking evenings.
As the government warned Friday that the ban would extend to tents erected outside the premises of bars and restaurants, the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority said it would start immediately with inspections.
Offenders face fines of up to 2,400 euros (3,800 dollars).
Meanwhile, the Central Statistical Bureau recently found that the number of smokers in the Netherlands has dropped by nearly 100,000 since 2000, with less than a quarter of Dutch still enjoying a cigarette.