Reuters International

Czech Republic's Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka speaks during a ceremony to sign bilateral agreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (not seen) in Jerusalem May 22, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka on Tuesday berated members of ruling coalition partner ANO for blocking a government-proposed anti-smoking bill in parliament, calling their vote against a national ban a "disgrace".

The proposed ban on smoking in restaurants would have brought Czech anti-smoking legislation up to speed with the majority of its fellow European Union members. Of the 28-member bloc, 17 have comprehensive smoke-free laws in place.

But critics, including the main opposition party the conservative Civic Democrats, see a ban on smoking as an attack on the Czech Republic's culture and on personal freedom. In the last decade, several attempts to introduce sweeping anti-smoking legislation have failed.

Opponents of the bill also argued that a ban would result in bars being forced out of business, especially in villages where they are still a main gathering place for the community.

Sobotka said ANO lawmakers who voted against the ban, even after the party's ministers had supported the initiative in an earlier cabinet vote, had gone against the ruling coalition's programme. On Twitter, he called the result a "disgrace".

Of the centrist ANO party's members who were present, 15 voted against the ban, 13 in favour and 16 abstained. The ruling coalition comprises Sobotka's Social Democrats, ANO and the Christian Democrats.

Blocking the ban "assisted the tobacco lobby and harmed the interests of citizens," Sobotka said in a later statement, and called for a coalition meeting for ANO to explain its action.

ANO leader, billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis, defended members who voted against the ban, denying on Twitter that they had violated any coalition agreements in doing so. Babis was absent in Brussels at the time of the vote.

ANO Vice Chairman Jaroslav Faltynek told reporters that the version of the bill approved by the cabinet had been "good" but was then changed in parliament.

Opposition lawmaker Marek Benda said he was pleased with the result.

"I am glad members of parliament support our opinion and rejected further regulation in business and the limiting of our freedom," the Civic Democrats member said.

Parliament's decision goes against the opinion of most Czechs - according to a Charles University and Ipsos agency poll last year, 78 percent supported a ban.

(Reporting by Petra Vodstrcilova, Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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