Why Germany balks at EU smoking bans
With strong backing from the industry, its politicians argue that curbing tobacco hampers personal freedom.
Last Friday seemed destined to be a watershed. After months of intense negotiations, Germany – Europe's largest tobacco market – announced plans to ban smoking in restaurants, dance clubs, schools, and other public buildings.Skip to next paragraph
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Then, two days later, leaders of Germany's grand coalition government, which crafted the ban, warned they might not have the authority to actually enact it, and that smoking regulation might fall to state governments instead. The plan is now on hold indefinitely.
This reversal is the latest in a series of false starts for antitobacco legislation in Germany, which has stubbornly resisted European Union pressure to limit smoking, even as other tobacco strongholds like Italy and France have put curbs in place. Germany has also agitated against international smoking regulations and defied EU rules on tobacco advertising.
"They're the bad boys of Europe," says Stanton Glantz, a researcher at the Center For Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. "No other country has done as much to thwart restrictions."
The nation's politicians have long argued that strong curbs on tobacco place too much constraint on personal freedom – a message that has resonated here since Adolf Hitler tried to stomp out smoking. But industry documents show that the tobacco lobby has been fighting for years to keep Germany free of regulations. Though the documents were released in 1998 as part of Big Tobacco's settlement with American states, it took researchers years to comb through them and bring to light the extent of the lobby's influence in Germany.
In one of the first comprehensive reports based on the papers, The American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) wrote earlier this year that the industry "has enjoyed a staggering amount of influence among leading scientists and clinicians [in Germany] and has, for decades and with virtual impunity, sought to manipulate and distort scientific evidence linking smoking to fatal diseases."
One of the nation's most respected research institutes is the Verum Foundation, which was founded by the tobacco industry to lend the "appearance of independence" to the research it funded, according the minutes of a German Cigarette Industry Association board meeting in 1990.
Wolfgang Oberrecht, the cigarette association's deputy managing director, says that it's no longer linked to Verum. "We don't do any research at this time," he says. "I can tell you we are committed to the protection of nonsmokers," he notes.
Still, Verum's executive director, Franz Adlkofer, has worked with the tobacco industry since the mid-1970s. According to industry documents, he was actively involved in suppressing and distorting scientific evidence on the dangers of smoking.
"Germany is the only highly developed, highly educated country where tobacco companies are still considered legitimate with researchers and academics, and still have such huge influence with government," says Mr. Glantz.