It’s one of the most common sights in Spain: a busy bar terrace with friends and families sat around tables enjoying food and drinks outdoors, while a handful of smokers light up cigarettes and puff to their hearts’ content. But it may not be long before this scene is no longer played out.
Spain was in fact one of the first countries to adopt a strict smoke-free provision with a complete ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, public transport, and workspaces – with only limited exceptions allowed.
The changes, first set in the Anti-Tobacco Law of 2005 but significantly increased by 2010, when all restaurants and bars became non-smoking places, came amid low public support.
In 2009, 51 percent of Spain’s population was completely in favour of smoking restrictions in restaurants, below the EU average of 63 percent.
Back then, 31.5 percent of the Spanish said they smoked (cigarettes, cigars or a pipe) every day or occasionally, and 19.7 percent said they used to smoke but stopped.
Just about a decade later, the numbers have changed: 24 percent of the population says they currently smoke, according to a European Commission research, and 31 percent replied that they used to smoke but have stopped.
This seems to be directly related to an array of measures and changes in public perception of smoking, and studies have shown that places with smoking bans have lower numbers of smokers.
What is the current law on smoking in Spain?
For a decade, Spain has had a complete ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, public transport, and workplaces.
Since 2010, it’s been only allowed to smoke outdoors in the open air in Spain, “in every space that is not covered, or every space that, despite coverage, is surrounded on its side by a maximum of two walls”.
Despite the lowering numbers, Spain also has too many smokers, pulmonologists warn. And the consequences are severe: lung cancer, often caused by smoking, is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer in Spain, according to the Spanish Ministry of Health.
Given these high figures, Spain’s Spanish Society of Pulmonology and Thoracic Surgery (SEPAR) has already proposed measures to help people stop smoking, including a ban on tobacco consumption in public spaces, even outdoors.
What will the Spanish government do?
Spain’s government is working on a plan to reduce tobacco consumption by 2025, following a target by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to cut by 30 percent the consumption of tobacco by 2025, compared with data from 2010.
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Among the measures is a total ban on smoking in open-air places where many people meet, such as the terrazas (bar, cafe, restaurant terraces) and beaches.
Some private spaces, including cars, could also become non-smoking areas.
Other measures include changes in the packaging of cigarettes to become “neutral”, without logos or colours, and an increase in cigarette prices.
When are the changes coming?
The proposed smoking laws announced by the Health Ministry, which were expected to come into force in 2021, are still delayed.
The package of new measures can only be ready by late 2022 or early 2023 as they must first have the approval of the Public Health Commission of Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council, before reaching the Spanish Cabinet and Parliament.
Successive health emergencies – from the coronavirus pandemic to recent cases of child hepatitis and monkeypox – have delayed the plans.
Though there is not even full agreement on how to implement which measures. For example, a smoking ban on private cars could come only when children or pregnant women are inside vehicles.
The Health Ministry says that the text is “practically ready” but still not approved as there are still “small administrative matters” that need to be solved, according to online daily 20minutos.
“We cannot wait any longer”
In the meantime, health associations, including the Spanish Society of Family and Community Medicine (semFYC), ask the government to speed up.
“In Spain, we are already far behind other European countries regarding measures to prevent smoking. These measures are designed to protect the health of the population and even the environment. That is why we consider that changes such as the extension of smoke-free spaces to terraces and our beaches and neutral tobacco packaging are measures that in Spain we cannot wait any longer”, says semFYC representative Susana Morena.
Spain’s Cancer Association (AECC) highlights that the measures would significantly protect young people and all populations by reducing risk factors that can cause cancer.
According to data from AECC, in 95 percent of the terraces in Spain, traces of damaging substances in tobacco can be found.
The same is true in 46 percent of schools access areas or 43 percent of playgrounds, the Cancer Association says. Moreover, a burnt-out cigarette butt continues to give off 14 percent nicotine for at least 24 hours, they added.