Smoking now Mandatory in Austrian Bars & Restaurants

© Ali Yahya

After rolling back the new law that would have prohibited smoking in restaurants and bars, Austria’s newly-minted conservative/right wing administration has decided to take refuge in audacity: Starting May 1st, smoking in Lokale will actually be mandatory.

To enforce compliance, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (FPÖ) has announced a new mounted police unit that will patrol hotspots in the 1st district and around the Gürtel; there may be delays however, as training horses to function blinded by tobacco smoke has taken longer than expected.

Despite the public outcry, Vice-Chancellor H.C. Strache, leader of the far-right FPÖ and a confirmed smoker himself, was pleased with the decision.

“This constant discrimination against minorities must end!,” Strache said. “Just because you have a disgusting habit shouldn’t make you a pariah, let alone put you under surveillance by the BVT,” he told the press. “Smoking is an integral part of Austria’s tradition of Gemütlichkeit, and no power-mad Brussels technocrat will take that away! WE are in charge of OUR Beisln and Stammtische! We won’t be patronized by know-it-all doctors and legislators!”

In perhaps one of his strongest arguments against the ban, he spoke out in favor of the right to choose. “Every Austrian has the right to make bad, even terrible, decisions – as we saw in the last election,” he insisted. “And if any bleeding-heart Gutmensch thinks their personal freedom is being infringed upon, they’re welcome to leave OUR culture… – wait, are we still talking about smoking?”

The new ruling, he went on, was the first step in his party’s long-term plan to turn the clock back to the “good old days” in Austria. At which point he excused himself to order three more beers.

Still, with almost three quarters of the population in favor of a referendum in support of the Anti Smoking Law, and well over half a million signatures on the “Don’t Smoke” Volksbegehren, there’s considerable pressure on the government to reconsider. One person who isn’t concerned is Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

“The trouble with referendums is, sometimes the population gets exactly what it wants,” he said obliquely. Fears that the EU would censor Austria for backpedalling on the anti-smoking legislation elicited a shrug. “They already made us give up our government monopoly on tobacco production. What more do they want?” With Hungary and Poland openly disregarding European values on press freedom and civil rights, he pointed out, “a bit of smoke is the least of Brussels’ worries.”

Critics accuse Austria’s 31 year-old chancellor – himself a non-smoker and light drinker – of caving in to the FPÖ, his junior coalition partner. Not so, according to Kurz, who described the decision as an example of “visionary leadership,” along the lines of his closing of the western Balkan refugee route early in 2016.

“Sure, we still make good money with tobacco sales,” he said, admitting that Austria made some €1.9 Billion in cigarette taxes in 2017. “But smoking is so much more to Austria,” the chancellor said, characterizing it as “the solution to our social security problem.” With an aging population, and a younger generation joining the work force later, Millennials are a kind of sandwich generation, made redundant by their early 50s after working for a mere 20 years, in what Kurz described as “our youth-obsessed culture.” But unlike him, he pointed out, not everyone can enjoy an early retirement on the board of OMV, Novomatic or maybe Gazprom.

How to make those numbers work? The answer is smoking: It may strain the healthcare system for a time, but it brings down life expectancy down, saving on retirement, the chancellor said. “We cash in with every pack!”

Kurz even sees unexpected benefits: “Remember the Balkan refugee route? All those destitute refugees – back on their side of the Mediterranean – can roll Turkish blend Camels for the Austrian market. Everyone wins!” The chancellor outlined a sort of “tobacco diplomacy” to replace foreign aid: “The Cubans, for one, are very excited” the chancellor said – even if they’re not on the western Balkan route.

Sure enough, one community has already benefitted from Austria’s decision: American tobacco farmers. According to one Virginia grower, the results have been swift and immediate:

“I don’t know if Trump can really save Coal Country, but this Kurz kid has done more for us than the Marlboro man,” he enthused, “These Australians have really saved our traditional way of life!”

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Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub