PRAGUE (Reuters) - Pubs in the Czech capital Prague filled up on Tuesday night and some held special events as smokers lit up for the last time before a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants took effect.
The ban, which started at midnight, gives the beer-loving nation some of the strictest cigarette-use laws in the European Union.
Most welcome it but some fear the new rules add to the list of regulations for bar owners and will harm the country's pub culture, marking the end of an era.
At the U Stary Svine (The Old Swine) pub, Petr Samek, a patron for two decades, said the ban went against a way of life long ingrained in Czech culture.
"The Czech nation is about what?" Samek asked. "Beer. People have always smoked in pubs. My grandad, my uncle used to go to the pub, smoke cigars, pipes, play cards."
The nation of 10.6 million - home to the original Pilsner beer - has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world at around 140 litres annually. A world-topping 40 percent of that is draught beer in pubs.
About 28 percent of Czechs smoke, just above the EU average.
Jara Zahradnik, who has worked at U Stary Svine since it started in the 1990s, said most customers who come to the small pub smoke while sipping their beers.
He says the ban impinges on his freedom - a feeling echoed by many Czechs including President Milos Zeman, a smoker who has flouted other nations' smoking laws while on state visits.
"I have no idea how many people who don't smoke will start coming here but even if the number of people doubles I don't agree because it is interference in freedom - not of the smokers but the pub owners," Zahradnik said while pouring a beer for one of the pub's six tables.
Lawmakers approved the ban following years of wrangling. Some conservatives fought it, saying the measure would put smaller pubs out of business, especially in villages where they often represent a meeting point.
Critics also say pubs are already under pressure from tougher gambling restrictions and a new online sales reporting system mandated by the government that raise operating costs.
Still, three out of four Czechs supported the smoking ban, polls showed last year. Health Minister Miloslav Ludvik said the ban would open restaurants to the "silent majority".
Additional reporting by Jiri Skacel; Editing by Michael Kahn