Smoking laws widely ignored, even by police

If anyone objected to the bartender smoking behind the bar of St Julian’s Labour Club in the early hours of yesterday morning, they would not have had to go far to inform a police officer. St Julian’s police station is just next door, and there was an officer in uniform drinking at the bar. The problem was, he was smoking as well.

Smoking in enclosed public spaces in Malta was banned nearly six years ago, but you would not know it if you were in Paceville or St Julian’s on the past two Friday nights.

A policeman was seen smoking at the PL club in St Julian's last Friday night.

A policeman was seen smoking at the PL club in St Julian's last Friday night.

The Sunday Times visited a total of 14 bars in the area over the two evenings between 10.30 p.m. and 1.30 a.m. to witness how the current smoking restrictions are being enforced. Judging by the manner in which revellers smoked inside with impunity, the government’s decision to extend the ban to all public places from 2013 will have little significance in Malta’s premier nightlife district.

It was 10.45 p.m. in a busy and well-known St Julian’s pub on January 29, when a bartender informed this newspaper that smoking inside was at patrons’ own risk. The number of people lighting up inside demonstrated that it was a risk many were willing to take.

The bird’s eye view of Malta in one of the country’s most prestigious venues was obscured by a cloud of cigarette smoke between 11.30 and 11.55 p.m. on the same night. A mixed crowd of locals and foreigners smoked openly, with many lighting up at the bar while waiting to be served.

On to the centre of Paceville, where The Sunday Times asked one security guard on the door of a popular bar on St George’s Road if it was possible to smoke inside. “You’re a tourist so it’s ok,” was his reply.

Only one bar visited by this newspaper seemed to be making an effort to stop people smoking illegally, with a bartender telling people to light-up outside.

Three pairs of uniformed police officers were seen patrolling the area in the early hours of January 30, but this did little to deter revellers from lighting up inside. Shortly after 1 a.m., The Sunday Times followed two officers inside a relatively empty bar on St George’s Road, where it was apparent that some patrons were smoking. However, they simply threw their cigarettes on the floor while the police chatted to a staff member.

Despite the defiance of smokers witnessed by The Sunday Times, Philip Fenech, president of the hospitality section within the Malta Chamber for Small and Medium Enterprises – GRTU, said the police were very strict about enforcing all licensing laws in Paceville, including the smoking ban.

“Many owners complain to me that the police won’t leave them alone,” he said.

His comments were backed by Jonathan Grima, manager of Havana club, who accused the police of “overdoing it” and said they sometimes visited his venue more than 10 times per night.

Mr Fenech said security staff should also be preventing people from smoking inside, but their priority was safety and the prevention of trouble when customers were intoxicated. People caught smoking in enclosed public spaces by the police can be fined not less than €232 and not more than €1,164 for a first offence.

While establishments in which people smoke illegally are also liable for a fine, Mr Fenech said owners are fined much less than they were in the beginning, when some owners were taken to court and found not to be responsible for their customers’ actions. There were discussions between the GRTU and the police in the months after the ban was introduced and enforcement was made more “practical”.

In general, owners of establishments are only arraigned if they are seen to be encouraging smoking by providing ashtrays, not displaying No Smoking signs, or obviously ignoring widespread smoking, according to Mr Fenech.

Mr Grima said bar owners were never arraigned by the police, but health inspectors did occasionally fine owners “as if we can ever be responsible for anyone smoking in our clubs”.

The lack of fines for owners means it is not in the interest of bars to stop people smoking illegally, according to a 40-year-old doorman at one of Paceville’s most established nightspots on St George’s Road.

The man, who did not wish to be named, said his weekends were “a living nightmare” because of passive smoking. “When the ban was first introduced it was heaven. Owners were being fined, so we needed to make sure no one smoked inside. Now owners are not being fined, we are told to be more relaxed about it because we don’t want to lose customers,” he said.

The doorman added that the problem becomes much worse after 1 a.m., when the venue closes its doors to comply with sound regulations.

The Sunday Times visited these premises after 1 a.m. on January 30 and lingering smoke was clearly visible as customers lit up freely.

While smokers may enjoy the freedom to defy the law, some non-smokers are not happy. Wilfrid Buttigieg, 30, purposely avoids Paceville when possible because he detests passive smoking.

“Paceville seems to be a lawless area when it comes to smoking – some people are so arrogant about it, yet nothing is done. It might only be a minority of smokers, but a minority is enough to put everyone’s health at risk,” he said.

The police did not respond when asked if they had made enforcement more “practical” by not arraigning owners if customers were found to be breaching the smoking ban.

Police figures show that 2,862 people were charged in 2008 and 2,564 were charged in 2009 for breaking the law on smoking in enclosed public spaces.


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