PRAGUE – The Czech Republic, the last European Union member still to allow unrestricted smoking in restaurants, is preparing to outlaw the practice, the health minister said.
Support for the ban is rising in the country of 10.5 million people, where restaurants aren't required to separate smokers from nonsmokers, Health Minister Svatopluk Nemecek said.
A bill drafted by his ministry may be debated in parliament as early as April.
"Czech society is definitely more ready than at any other time before," said Nemecek, who took over the ministry in 2014. "I believe the political situation is also favorable."
The bill seeks to outlaw smoking in restaurants as well as at concert halls, dance clubs and other public places. In its current form, the proposed legislation would also ban electronic and herbal cigarettes, increase penalties for serving alcohol to minors and oblige restaurants and bars to offer at least one nonalcoholic drink cheaper than beer.
The Health Ministry will submit the draft law to the legislature as early as next week. A restaurant owner caught breaking the ban could be fined almost $2,000.
Opponents of the bill, including members of the ruling coalition party, argue that the proposed ban is too harsh. An alternative version would bar smoking tobacco only in restaurants and bars.
More than 80 percent of Czechs want the state to tighten smoking regulations, according to a survey last year.
"It pains me to hear my country described as the chimney of Europe," said Jiri Hlavaty, owner of Czech textile company Juta and a member of the country's Senate. "We're completely out of sync with the rest of the E.U."
Previous attempts to pass a stricter anti-smoking measure have failed as a result of strong lobbying from the local tobacco industry, said Kristina Mauer-Stender, program manager for tobacco control at the World Health Organization.
"It's been a long process that has so far amounted to virtually nothing," Mauer-Stender said. "The current law is weak, and enforcement is also weak."
The Czech unit of Philip Morris International Inc. did not respond to requests for comment.
"I'm sure the law draft has already activated the tobacco lobby, which will undoubtedly do its utmost to support the business," Nemecek said. "I hope parliament will resist those pressures and protect public health."