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Breathing Easy

By - November 1, 2006 (Updated: November 28, 2014)


After living in Belgium for almost two years now, I’ve noticed little change on the smoking ban front. I cough my way through smoky cafes, trying to find a corner where I can breathe easy, only to have a table of seven chain-smokers appear beside me as soon as I’m settled.

When Andrew and I dine out (which is often more frequently than our budget allows) we are rarely asked if we would prefer a non-smoking table. Back in Halifax, we are no longer asked that question either – because you aren’t allowed to smoke in restaurants anymore – period.

Halifax, being a city of five universities, has a thriving weekend industry that you won’t find on many tourist brochures – cheap beer and pizza. Naturally in 2003 when the city imposed a smoking ban on all food service establishments there was a public outcry. Restauranteurs and bar owners argued that people would stop patronising their establishments if they couldn’t smoke.

The ban went through despite the complaints and something miraculous happened – nothing. Oddly enough, students still wanted to drink and party on weekends and residents still wanted to eat where someone else would do the cooking. Bars and restaurants not only stayed open – they flourished.

The ban on smoking in public buildings has been in place for so long in Eastern Canada that before I came to Europe, I took it for granted. The first time I flew through Heathrow airport, I couldn’t believe the clouds of smoke I had to wade through to get to my gate.

My first train excursion in the Netherlands was less pleasant than it should have been due to my own lack of observation. As I settled myself into my seat for a half hour journey, I noticed that just about everyone around me was lighting up. I had thought the Dutch were a health conscious race, but it seemed as though I was the only person on the train who wasn’t puffing on a cigarette.

As I disembarked, I realised I may as well have been, as I had inadvertently sat in a smoking car. Until then it hadn’t occurred to me that such a thing would exist (and thankfully it no longer does in the Netherlands).

After a couple of years in Europe, I had almost forgotten what smoke-free air smelled like – until I visited Ireland.

I wasn’t aware that the Irish had banned smoking until I was enjoying my first restaurant meal there. What was that amazing taste, I wondered. Oh, I realized. It was the food without an after-taste of cigarettes.

My mental image of the dark, smoke-filled, Irish pub evaporated in a puff of… well, smoke.

The good news is that Belgium is making baby-steps towards becoming smoke-free. As of January, restaurants will be required have smoking areas in rooms away from where food is served.

I can’t tell you how many times my ‘non-smoking area’ table has been less than a metre away from the smoking section. For all the difference it made, I may as well have had someone smoking on my lap.

So far, bars and cafes aren’t included in the smoking ban. However, I remain hopeful that in a few years, Belgium (and the rest of Europe) will be smoke free and we can all breath a little easier.

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