Himalayan News Service

New Delhi, May 16:

More than a fortnight into the Indian government’s ban on smoking in public, Indians nonchalantly puff away on the nicotine stick — quite unprepared for the radical change in lifestyle and behaviour that it would entail. Though most air-conditioned offices have already banned smoking, leisure time is a different matter. Lighting up a cigarette in a cosy bar or in a frenzied discotheque or just enjoying a relaxed smoke through a dinner at a restaurant, that’s the way it has always been. And that’s how it should continue to be, say smokers across the country as five-star hotels, cafes and restaurants, big and small, wonder how to reconcile the anti-smoking law, which took effect from May 1 following a Supreme Court order, with demanding customers. Like A Dawson in Maharashtra’s Pune town said, “A smoker will remain a smoker. It is a habit that cannot be broken. We smokers will find ways and means to break the law and not get caught.” It’s just that defiance — ever tried arguing with a habitual smoker that it is bad for health? — which has the restaurant business worried.

“Smoking and alcohol go together. One is not complete without the other. This ban has put us and our guests in an awkward position,” said Ravish Dave of the Quality Inn Residency group in Hyderabad, which runs two restaurants and a pub.

The fear of upsetting a customer is uppermost in their minds. M RPatare, owner of Mumbai’s Green Village restaurant, said, “We cannot stop anybody from smoking. If we do not allow a customer to smoke, there are other restaurants that will allow it. We only request the customer not to smoke if another customer objects. But in Mumbai it is a policy of each to himself and god for all.” The unexpected profundity, notwithstanding, the law banning cigarettes in eateries seating less than 30 and separate enclosures for smokers and non-smokers in bigger establishments has come into force - if not into implementation as yet. Eateries will have to comply with it in the long run at least. The expense for accommodating the new diktat will vary anywhere between Rs 50,000 Indian Currency (IC) to Rs 500,000 IC for a task that involves not just dividing the restaurant in half but redesigning and remodelling airflow and ventilation systems.

The Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India has appointed a consultant to advise on the technical aspects and on dealing with customers. And the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Orissa has begun the task by circulating a copy of the government order to all its members in the state. But it is a tall order for many eateries. “Apart from just the expenditure, if we partition the place, it becomes a tight squeeze. If you do not have a sprawling area, you would probably not be left with any option but to declare the entire restaurant as a no-smoking zone,” an owner of a popular Chinese restaurant in Lucknow complained. He called the new anti-smoking law unreasonable and impracticable and said he was bound to lose his younger clients.

While the larger restaurants like Amber and Peter Cat in Kolkata or Basera in Hyderabad or Ritz in Lucknow are taking steps to implement the law, many others are perhaps waiting for the axe to fall. Popular eateries like Manish Lunch Home, Trishna and Yoko Sizzles in Mumbai don’t have separate no-smoking zones as yet and refused to comment on the law. The smaller ones, which have to completely ban smoking, are the worst off. And it’s not just because alcohol and smoking go together. “We fear that we will lose our old customers if they don’t get to smoke while they are chatting and having tea,” said Sarat Kanti Majumder of the 75-year-old Regal Cabin. Its main clientele is the elderly retired who spend hours discussing world affairs over endless cups of tea and coffee — accompanied by a smoke, of course.

Others say frankly that they just cannot afford to turn away customers.