Does smoking in public affect Swiss tourism?

Know the feeling? A 2015 poster campaign by the Federal Office of Public Health to give up smoking Keystone

Visitors to Switzerland don’t have much to complain about, but smoking in public makes many of them see red. How concerned is the tourism industry, and will new “smoking zones” in train stations improve the situation? 

This content was published on June 4, 2019 - 14:27

“I was just there and again couldn’t believe the cigarette smoke as soon as I got off the trains!” – Luigi 

“I couldn’t believe how much smoking was everywhere! It made everything just a little less beautiful.” – Lori 

These are two of the many, many responses we received after asking our readers recently what disappointed them the most when they visited Switzerland. 

“Above all else, what I don’t like is the smoking. I had heard that the Swiss were very healthy and yet a good proportion smoke and they do it all over the place. Including right outside buildings so you have to walk through a wall of smoke to get in and out. Awful.” – Susan 

In fact tobacco smoking in Switzerland is just below the global average, according to a WHO international comparisonExternal link from 2015, although prevalence is less in Britain, the US, Canada and Australia. 

The law is clear: smoking has been banned in the workplace and enclosed public spaces since 2010. In practice, however, the situation can be slightly cloudy. Cigarette smoke from the next table can legally spoil your meal in a restaurant garden or terrace. The same generally goes for hotel and apartment balconies as well as open-air sports stadiums and concerts. And then there are train stations. 

“Disappointed with all the smokers everywhere, specially train stations.” – Abril Hauser 

“Tobacco smoking. All nations should simply ban it outright. Until then, at least ban them from train and tram platforms/stops.” – Mark 

Smoking on trains and in stations was banned in 2005, yet smoking on packed train platforms – unavoidable for many tourists – is perfectly legal. 

The law

In Switzerland, smoking on trains and in station buildings was banned on December 12, 2005, but passengers can still smoke on platforms. 

The federal law against passive smokingExternal link came into effect on May 1, 2010. Smoking is forbidden in the workplace as well as public spaces such as restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shopping centres, airports, schools and cinemas. However, ventilated smoking rooms are permitted. 

Establishments that are smaller than 80 square metres may apply to their cantonal authorities to become designated smokers’ dens (although most cantons say no).

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Smoking zones 

However, the winds of change are slowly aerating Swiss public transport. From the beginning of June, smoking on Swiss train platforms will gradually be limited to smoking zones, which were tested last year

These smoking zones are logistically challenging – especially for smaller stations – so it will be another year until all Switzerland’s stations are in principle smoke-free. How exactly the zones will work was explained by the Public Transport Union and the Federal Railways on June 4. 

The authorities are not expecting great resistance. The Public Transport Union said in November that three-quarters of respondents wanted the laws to be changed. 

Compared with other European countries, smoking regulations in Swiss train stations are extremely liberal. Britain, France, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain have a complete ban on smoking in train stations, while in Germany and Norway smoking is permitted only in designated zones.  

The Public Transport Union rejected a total smoking ban in stations because they “didn’t want to upset anyone”. The goal is maximum customer satisfaction, it said. 

Tourism view 

One of my pet peeves about Switzerland: the smoking! Especially by young people and in public places, which coming from England is now an odd thing to see in this day and age. For a country supposedly so obsessed with health, ‘wellness’ and the environment, it’s something that jars with the image.” – David 

Whether these smoking zones improve the experience of tourists remains to be seen. But unlike smokers, tourist numbers are healthy

“Since we were not aware of the problem, we do not actively deal with it, so we have not lobbied the government or cantons to try to tighten the smoking law so far,” said Robert Zenhäusern, scientific assistant at the Swiss Tourism FederationExternal link (STF). 

“Personally, I don’t think [smoking] actually influences our guests’ decisions to visit or avoid Switzerland. If there are actually people who say ‘I’m never going to visit Switzerland again, there’s just too much smoking’, they are very few indeed.” 

While Zenhäusern thinks smoking zones will put some tourists at ease, he doesn’t think more measures will be taken in the near future. “Should smoking become a real problem – so much so that it keeps visitors from coming to Switzerland – the STF will get active,” he said. 

‘Rude and inconsiderate’ 

Jürg Hurter, president of anti-smoking organisation Pro AereExternal link, believes all the smoking does damage Switzerland’s image. 

“In advanced societies today smoking is no longer considered desired but out of date and, when a third party is affected, rude and inconsiderate,” he said. 

Hurter differentiated between smoking zones and fumoirs. “We reject smoking zones in stations. We think sealed smoking rooms that are only accessible for adults are sad and depressing but we don’t object to them.” 

Does he have any tips for visitors to Switzerland who want to avoid passive smoking? “No, it’s not possible to get reliable information on which establishments are totally smoke-free. Mind you, we don’t think a hotel or restaurant must be totally smoke-free. We don’t object to a fumoir as long as it doesn’t have an effect on the surrounding area.” 

Smoking statistics

In 2017, 27.1% of Swiss over the age of 15 smoked (31% for men and 23.3% for women). For those aged 15-24 the figure was 31.7%. 

In Switzerland, some 9,500 people die a year from consuming tobacco (26 people a day). The most common causes of death for smokers are heart problems (39%), lung cancer (28%), breathing problems (15%) and other types of cancer (14%). These deaths make up 15% of all deaths. 

When it comes to passive smoking, the proportion of people exposed to smoke against their will for at least one hour a day has dropped from 35% in 2002 to 6% in 2017. 

Tobacco costs the Swiss economy around CHF5.6 billion ($5.6 billion) a year – CHF1.7 billion for medical costs and CHF3.9 billion for loss of earnings. 

A pack of 20 cigarettes costs on average CHF8. Tax on tobacco brings in just over CHF2 billion a year. This is paid into the AHV (old-age, survivors’ and invalidity insurance scheme). 

(Source: Federal Office of Public HealthExternal link)

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