In 2015, the SPÖ (democratic) and ÖVP (conservative) coalition in Austria agreed upon a general smoking ban in restaurants and taverns beginning in May 2018. They even went so far as to incentivize the restaurant industry—they would reimburse 10% of the cost for the reconstruction work separating smokers from non-smokers enforced by a previous regulation if they changed their localities to being completely smoke-free by July 2016. This smoking ban was known by many as a health policy milestone and was championed by the late Austrian health minister Sabine Oberhauser (SPÖ) and then the finance minister Reinhold Mitterlehner (ÖVP). The only remaining obstacle to the passing of the new smoke-free law was the 2017 parliamentary elections.

Those elections proved to be a serious setback because by the end of 2017, the ÖVP announced it would enter into a coalition with the far-right political party, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), as they were the third-strongest party in the election, winning just one seat less than the SPÖ. Despite the fact that Austria has the 5th highest percentage of smokers (35%) in the EU and around 200 Austrians die from tobacco use every week, one of the conditions that the FPÖ presented during coalition talks with the ÖVP in mid-December 2017 was to drop the smoking ban set for enforcement on May 1st 2018, directly linking this decision with the FPÖ entering into the governing coalition.

On March 22, 2018 the decision was made official via a government resolution– the new coalition repealed the smoking ban for restaurants and taverns. The health and social ministers – Beate Hartinger Klein (FPÖ) – initial statement was “as health minister I could naturally not identify with such a suggestion,” however “I respect the majority and if parliament passes such a  resolution I, as the health minister, must accept it.” After one months’ time and heavy criticism from the opposition party, her viewpoint changed to, “We know that smoking is unhealthy and addictive, but I condemn discrimination against minorities and addicts.”

From Left to Right: Sabine Oberhauser, Reinhold Mitterlehner, and Beate Hartinger Klein

Within a week of this decision, a petition against the government to reinstate the smoking ban garnered over 500,000 signatures. The FPÖ, avowed supporters of direct democracy, welcomed the petition and declared that petitions with just 250,000 signatures should instigate a national referendum vote. The ÖVP, increased this number to 900,000 and stated that there will be no national referendum until 2021 no matter how many signatures are acquired. The reason for this is because the governmental program, agreed upon by the FPÖ and the ÖVP, concretely states that a citizen’s initiative in the form of a referendum, if the constitutional order is changed, can be implemented for the first time in 2021.

In the meanwhile, the campaign entitled Don’t Smoke believes that they will get the necessary signatures and will be gathering them again between October 1st and October 10th. Meanwhile, non-smoking Austrians continue to suffer from the exposure to secondhand smoke in all its deadly forms— 57% report being exposed to secondhand smoke in bars and 32% report exposure in restaurants, among the highest rates in the EU. The Austrian public has the chance to protect their own health, and we can do our best to encourage them to make the healthy choice.

By Michelle Falkenbach