PRAGUE The Czech lower house of parliament on Friday approved a ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and pubs, overcoming years of wrangling and bringing the country in line with most others in the European Union.
"This brings the Czech Republic (in line with) civilized countries that care for the health of their citizens," Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said.
Parliament's upper house must sign off on the legislation but the lower house vote showed there was enough support to override any potential veto. The law is to take effect on May 31, 2017, the annual World No Tobacco Day.
Seventeen of the 28 EU member states have comprehensive smoking-free laws in place. The ban enjoys support from three in four Czechs, polls show, but is sensitive all the same as Czechs are fervent pub-goers and beer drinkers are often smokers. Moreover, Czechs drink the most beer per capita in the world.
About 28 percent of Czechs are smokers, somewhat above the EU average of 24 percent. About 18,000 Czechs die annually from smoking-related illnesses, the Health Ministry says.
But there has been a clear trend toward less smoking in public places, especially in bigger cities, and many restaurants have voluntarily gone no-smoking in recent years.
In the last decade, several attempts to introduce sweeping anti-smoking legislation failed, most recently in May.
Opponents of a ban have argued it would force bars out of business, especially in villages where they remain a main gathering point for locals, and say it should be up to each restaurant owner to decide.
To push the latest legislation through, the Health Ministry accepted a compromise offering a peek into Czech pub life - it agreed to drop a clause requiring restaurants to serve at least one non-alcoholic drink cheaper than beer, addressing the fact that Czech beer is cheaper than water in some places.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)