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Cigarette smoke and mirrors

BRUSSELS, July 1 (Xinhua) — No butts about it. Belgian bars become less hazy on Friday as the country becomes the 20th in Europe to widen its smoking ban.

Belgium’s new laws take effect close on the heels of China which also banned smoking in indoor public venues in May this year. So, what challenges do both countries face as they seek to control a notoriously addictive product sold by an equally powerful industry?

From July 1, people in bars and cafes in Belgium with the urge to light up will only be allowed to do so in designated smoking areas. By law, these zones need to be fitted with air vents and be no larger than 25 percent of the venue. Another rider is no sale of drinks and snacks will be permitted there.

Those caught violating the law can be fined between 143 and 1,650 euros. The onus of enforcing the ban is expected to lie on bar-owners and their employees.

For many campaigners, Belgium has been frustratingly slow in changing its smoking laws. The path to today’s smoking ban in pubs was paved by the ban of smoking in trains in 2004, in workplaces in 2006 and in restaurants in 2007.

“The anti-tobacco voice in Europe is growing louder,” tobacco control expert Luk Joossens from the Belgian chapter of the Foundation Against Cancer told Xinhua.

“Though we are extremely disappointed by the delay in getting to this stage, I’m optimistic now that the ban is in effect and I think it will work,” he said, stressing its main objective is not to reduce the consumption of cigarettes but to protect bar employees and the general public from passive smoking.

Because people will no longer be subject to passive smoking, Joossens hopes for a major drop in heart disease in Belgium. “After the smoking ban in Scotland, heart attacks in the country fell by 17 percent. If a similar thing happens in Belgium, there will be 2,500 fewer heart-attacks per year,” he said.

While tobacco control campaigners win the public health debate, tobacco lobbies often counter by mentioning government tax revenues. For example, Chinese newspapers in 2009 reported that more than 7.5 percent of Chinese government revenue, or 77.3 billion U.S. dollars, came from taxes and profits related to tobacco.

However, leading Belgian law academic and anti-tobacco campaigner Professor Roger Blanpain rubbishes the notion that revenues will be hit.

“The economic argument for tobacco is nonsensical. Governments spend three times their tax income from tobacco companies in treating the medical fallouts of tobacco-related illnesses. Not to mention, days off work due to tobacco-related illnesses or children getting sick because of their parents smoking,” Blanpain told Xinhua.

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