December 11, 2017 / 6:04 PM / a month ago

Austria to drop impending smoking ban, bucking Western trend

VIENNA (Reuters) - While much of the West has barred smoking in restaurants and bars, Austria’s impending ban is set to be stubbed out.

The small, affluent country is famed for its Alpine scenery and its capital, Vienna, is regularly rated as the world’s best city to live in. But many visitors are surprised to find that nights out often feature the acrid smell of decades past.

Austria passed a law banning smoking in bars and restaurants as of May 2018. But that will now be overturned under a deal between the conservative People’s Party (OVP) led by Sebastian Kurz and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) reached during their ongoing negotiations on a governing coalition, according to a person familiar with their discussions.

“The current rules will remain in place,” the person said, confirming reports by local media. Smoking is banned in general in the restaurant industry but various exceptions are allowed.

Scrapping the impending ban was an idea championed by FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, who has repeatedly tried, in vain, to quit smoking. Kurz, who is just 31, has never acquired the habit and even shuns coffee, a rare abstinence in a country with a celebrated cafe culture.

Smoking was not a major issue in the election, in which Kurz made a hard line on immigration his theme. But some restaurant owners pushed for the planned ban to be dropped, supported by Strache, who has said they should be free to choose whether they allow customers to smoke.

“Overturning the total ban on smoking in the restaurant industry is an enormous step backwards on health policy,” said Health Minister Pamela Rendi-Wagner of the Social Democrats, who plan to go into opposition once a coalition deal is reached.

“This shows that people’s health is of no importance to black-blue,” she said in a statement, referring to the OVP and FPO by their traditional colors.

The coalition deal also included lifting the smoking age from 16 to 18 and banning smoking in cars when a minor is inside, the person familiar with the talks said.

While both sides have yet to clinch a coalition agreement in talks that began soon after Kurz’s party won an Oct. 15 parliamentary election, a deal before Christmas is likely, people familiar with the negotiations say.

Reporting by Francois Murphy and Kirsti Knolle; editing by Mark Heinrich

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