Initiative puts health before business interests

Smokers have to step outside in most restaurants, but the law also allows special smoker lounges Keystone

A proposal seeking a consistent indoor smoking ban across the country is submitted to a nationwide vote on September 23, four years after parliament agreed to minimum standards against passive smoking in the workplace.

This content was published on July 30, 2012 minutes
Urs Geiser and Sonia Fenazzi,

The initiative by the Swiss Lung League and about 50 other health, consumer, trade union organisations and centre-left parties targets cantons that tolerate restaurants and bars which serve clients in separate smokers’ lounges.

A broad political alliance of centrist and rightwing parties, the business community, notably the restaurant sector, as well as the government argue the proposal is too radical and goes against the cherished federal system granting the cantons a large degree of autonomy.

“We do not want to point the finger at smokers. They can continue to light up, but only in places where their smoke does not bother others,” said Otto Piller, member of the initiative committee of the lung league.

The former senator and head of the Federal Social Security Office says the initiative hopes to revive an initial plan by the cabinet, which was watered down by parliament.

The current regulations in principle outlaw smoking in closed workplaces used by several people or accessible to the public. However, it allows exceptions for special bars, separate small smokers’ rooms, with or without waiter’s service.

Fifteen out of 26 cantons have imposed a strict indoor smoking ban, while the others have a more liberal legislation.

Health hazard

Piller dismisses allegations that the proposal by the league is excessive. “We simply want a uniform solution.” It makes no sense to apply different rules in a small country like Switzerland.

In a statement after more than 116,000 valid signatures were handed over to the Federal Chancellery in 2010, Piller also argued that cantons with stricter regulations are coming under pressure to ease their policies.

The initiative is in line with regulations in most European countries, adds centre-left Social Democratic parliamentarian Silvia Schenker.

She says the aim is to protect restaurant employees better against passive smoking, which is considered a serious health hazard.

“Not everyone is really free to choose whether they want to wait on guests in a smokers’ room,” she says. Under existing legislation, some cantons allow smokers’ bars or lounges, but employees must give their consent to work in these zones.


At the launch of their campaign in early July, opponents accused the initiative of trying to impose “unnecessary, excessive and anti-federalist” rules.

“We reject any form of prohibition,” said Christophe Darbellay, a centre-right Christian Democratic parliamentarian.

He was backed by Karin Keller-Sutter, senator for the centre-right Radical Party, and Thomas Aeschi, a parliamentarian for the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, who warned of a potential financial setback for restaurant owners.

Keller-Sutter said smaller restaurants especially had recorded a considerable decrease in turnover as a result of the introduction of the anti-smoking law. Other establishments had to invest considerable sums to set up separate lounges for smokers, she says.

Aeschi dismissed the initiative as a “massive infringement on personal freedom. Everybody can choose whether or not to enter a public space where people smoke.”

He does not believe either that employees have been forced to work in smokers’ lounges.


The government has also come out against the initiative, saying the current regulations are sufficient to protect employees from passive smoking.

It believes the proposal comes too soon and the impact of the latest reform approved by parliament in 2008 has to be assessed.

“First we have to learn the lessons from the experiences which in many ways have been positive,” the cabinet said in its bill to parliament.

Two previous attempts to force nationwide votes on tobacco consumption have failed over the past few years. Both an attempt to bring down the parliamentary reform in a referendum as well as a constitutional amendment calling for smoking restrictions to be lifted failed to collect the necessary signatures.

Another bid to impose an outright smoking ban on public spaces indoors and outdoors was launched by a group in June. It seeks to introduce rules against passive smoking in line with those promoted by the World Health Organization.

The campaigners have 18 months to collect at least 100,000 signatures to force a vote.

Health warning

The Federal Health Office warns that passive smoking can cause lung cancer, damage the cardio-vascular system, lead to asthma and infections of the respiratory system.

It says people subject to passive smoking have a higher risk of strokes, heart attacks and cancer.

The office says children and babies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of tobacco smoke.

A survey by Zurich University in 2010 found that exposure to passive smoking decreased markedly over the previous 12 months after restrictions were introduced by parliament.

However, 10% of respondents said they were exposed to passive smoking during seven hours a week.

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September 23 vote

Three issues are to be decided at the ballot box at a nationwide level:

Besides the initiative on passive smoking, voters will also decide on proposed tax breaks for elderly home owners and a constitutional article aimed at promoting musical education.

An estimated 5.1 million people, including registered Swiss expatriates can take part in the ballot.

As part of ongoing trials with electronic voting, about 164,000 citizens can have their say online.

It is the third in series of four nationwide ballots this year. Votes will also take place on different issues at the cantonal and local levels.

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