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Community / Public space

Athens is trying to cut fumes from its roads and smoke from its bars

Athens is getting serious about air quality – in theory. The municipality has pledged to ban all diesel vehicles from its city centre by 2025.

Around six per cent of all deaths in Greece are linked to air pollution, towards which diesel engines are acknowledged as a leading contributor. Plus, with nearly 30 per cent of the population living in the capital, the plan seems eminently sensible.

But the moment something appears to make sense in Athens is exactly the time to pay attention. Because what was omitted from the great fanfare around the announcement of this commitment, made alongside the mayors of Mexico City, Paris and Madrid, was that it is actually nothing new for this particular city.

Along with Thessaloniki, Athens had a diesel ban in place from 2001: and it seemed to work well. Greece was ahead of the game on urban air quality, something that the UK could’ve stood to learn from before winding up in court repeatedly for pollution breaches.

Then, in 2011, the ban was scrapped. Diesel vehicle sales rose once again. And this, coupled with households burning pretty much anything combustible for winter heating in the light of sky-high energy taxes, has unsurprisingly led to a return to dirtier air.

If loosening these restrictions was about helping citizens struggling financially, then putting them back in place is either a sign of bold economic confidence for the coming years – or an admission that overturning policies that deal directly with public mortality is perhaps a touch on the reckless side.

Of course, clean air – or a lack of it – is far from an outdoors-only issue in Greek cities. There has had a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces since 2009 – but this is easily the nation’s most flagrantly flaunted legislative measure.

There are no checks on venues, or anything remotely approaching a widespread will to self-police. Smoke hangs in the air of most bars and cafes, and ashtrays are brought to tables pretty much as standard. This is a country where a health minister felt at liberty to light up at a press conference.

Haze over Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Nonetheless, the crackdown is, apparently, set to begin. Notice has been given that the law will be dormant no more, with €50-500 euro fines handed out to individuals caught cig-handed in public, and up to 10,000 plus the possibility of closure for venues playing loose with the ban.

Idle threats? Possibly. There are a great deal of rules and regulations in Greece: the difficulty is their enforcement. It is curious that the birthplace of the rule of law is, these days, a nation where traffic lights are routinely cursed at as jobsworth authority figures.

Yet, there are signs that obedience is achievable. Indeed, aside from the air quality and health connections, Athens’ previous attempt to restrict diesel vehicles do have an echo with the apparently renewed commitment to tackling indoor smoking. It seems to illustrate that regulation can be enforced, if the will is there.

And it might well be. For one thing, there are millions of euros of philanthropic money being pumped into Smoke Free Greece, a campaign aimed at the next generation of Greeks and backed by health-focused research.

One barrier to change is that the act of smoking does enjoy something of a unique niche in the realm of dirty air; a sense of the ‘last bastion of individual liberty’. This is a trait not so strong around the right to pump whatever you want from the exhaust of your vehicle.

Yet, the latest statistics have suggested that Greeks are giving up smoking on a scale never seen before, while a recent poll suggested that a huge majority of the public believe that not complying with anti-smoking laws is unacceptable, and even a national disgrace.

The latter finding is, however, something of a contrast to the views you’re likely to hear socially, while online rows regularly erupt among Athenians on this issue. These generally end up departing from the theme of smoking per se, towards stratification along the lines of whether or not resistance to rules is a unique cultural trait to have, and indeed, hold.

This is certainly not the only point of cultural note to consider in the clean air debate. In fact, the Greeks could well be considered the behavioural economist’s worst nightmare.


There’s a sense that, while keeping a pristine home is prized, what’s outside your four walls doesn’t matter quite as much. Then, there’s the rampant strain of anti-authority conspiracy theorising, which includes a significant section of the population subscribing to the ‘chemtrails’ hypothesis. There’s air pollution – then there’s the theory that the powers-that-be are subduing citizens with mild-altering chemicals from the tailpipes of passing planes.

Ultimately, nothing is ever as simple as the acceptance of rules governing aspects of our daily business versus a total free-for-all: urban life is by its very nature a matter of give and take. Even, to some extent, in Athens.

Yet the smoking issue provides a stark illustration of the tensions in Europe today. Many cities discuss smart connectivity on a grand scale, and the public data flows and consent issues that go with that.  Meanwhile, at the southerly end of the continent, they seem unable to decide whether enforcing a near-decade old piece of public health regulation represents a grand capitulation to an alien, ‘North European’ mentality.

It’s possible to speculate that loosely-enforced legislation has something of a unifying role in Greece. Where nationalists and anarchists seem to work a rotating protest schedule, equal commitment to the idea of not batting an eyelid to day-to-day statute could well be seen as a political common ground, in a country where polarisation is the norm. Who knows what terrors could await if rules start being implemented, the safety valve blocked up.

Regardless, the practical advantages of cleaning Athens’ air, inside and out, are pretty clear. It could do a lot to change outsiders’ perception of Athens as one of Europe’s grubbier capitals.

So, will mystery smokers soon be propping up city bars, making clandestine notes of offences on toilet visits? Will lines of otherwise under-employed Hellenic Police be forming cordons across roads into the centre of Athens, checking engines in the run up to 2025? All bets are off.

Whatever happens, a scene is set well worth lighting up a cigar and watching with avid attention. Though you might, just might, have to do so outside.

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