Spain, famed for its smoke-filled bars, corner cafes and restaurants, set the stage last week for a tough new anti-smoking law that will rid the country of its dubious status as one of Western Europe's easiest places to light up.
The bill passed by a parliamentary commission calls for transforming all bars and restaurants into no-smoking zones, bringing Spain in line with the European Union's strictest anti-smoking nations and many U.S. states that bar smoking in enclosed public places. It's expected to pass the Senate and become law Jan. 2.
The law also will make Spain a tougher place to smoke than many other European countries where bars and restaurants are still allowed to have smoking sections, and it will prohibit smoking in outdoor places such as playgrounds and the grounds of schools and hospitals.
The current law put in place in 2006 prohibits smoking in the workplace. but that law permitted owners of most bars and cafes to decide on their own whether to allow smoking -- and almost all ended up doing so.
Those bar and cafe owners will now lose the privilege, and larger restaurants that still have smoking sections will have to get rid of them. Officials predict thousands of lives now lost to secondhand smoke will be saved.
"I think the new law is good, especially if it helps us keep healthy," said Puri De Arcos, 33, as she puffed away in a park square. "But I think it is too radical, banning smoking in discos, for example."
Bar and restaurant owners hope to win an exception in the law allowing them to construct hermetically sealed smoking sections, but the parliamentary commission voted down that option. Hotels will be allowed to set aside 30 percent of the rooms for smokers.
The bill endorsed by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his governing Socialist Party next goes for debate in the Senate where it is likely to be approved quickly or sent back with minor changes for approval in the lower house.
About the only concession that owners of smoke-filled establishments got was a pledge by the government for the law to take effect Jan. 2 -- instead of a day earlier, the peak of Spain's weeklong spell of Christmas and New Year's festivities that draws huge crowds of Spaniards to bars and restaurants.
Salvador Chacon, who owns a small bar and smokes himself, expects to lose business because so many of his regulars come every day for beers and "tapa" snacks and then automatically light up, often passing away hours drinking and smoking with their friends.
Chacon said any many others also fear Spain could lose crucial tourism revenue because it's among the last European nations where travelers are free to smoke in eateries -- after sampling Spain's renowned food and tapas.
"The rest of Europe doesn't have the charming tradition of canas and tapas. It's our way of life and it's also what tourists look for," said Chacon.
Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez noted that smokers will still be allowed to smoke on the open-air terraces of bars, and many Spanish bars have them, often setting up tables and chairs on the sidewalk.