The Hague: Nearly half of the Netherlands` 5,630 bars openly defy a smoking ban that is two years old on Thursday, saying they risk financial ruin if they show puffing clients the door.
"If I prevent people smoking in my bar, it would mean bankruptcy for sure," Gerhard Sannes, owner of De Kachel (The Stove) bar in Groningen in the north east of the country told.
"I tried it in the beginning, but my sales fell by 75 percent" in a two-month period, he said.
Fined 1,200 euros (1,461 dollars) in February last year for thwarting the ban introduced on July 1, 2008, Sannes said he would remain defiant.
According to recent figures from the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (VWA), a government body, some 41 percent of Dutch bars and discos transgress the law.
"It is mostly small bars with no staff (apart from the owner) that do not respect the law," Wiel Maessen, secretary of the Save the Small Cafe Owners anti-ban group, told. "They don`t have the space or the money to install separate smoking areas."
The Netherlands banned smoking in the hotel, restaurant and catering industry in July 2008 to protect staff from the dangers of passive smoking. But bars with no staff except the owner, 3,095 of the total, argue they should be exempt.
Maessen said turnover of some bars that adhered to the law was more than halved, and many chose to risk fines ranging from 300 to 2,400 euros instead. "When people are made to smoke outside, there is not a good atmosphere in the bar," said Jeff Broeren, the defiant owner of De Kauw (The Jackdaw) in Tilburg in the south Netherlands.
"And when someone is outside, he or she cannot order a drink," he lamented. Shortly after the ban was introduced, a group of bar owners led by Broeren organised themselves in protest.
Over the last two years, the group has collected some 1,500 supporters and 75,000 euros to help small bar owners pay fines and legal costs. The organisation Save the Small Cafe Owners has launched a similar project, with some 1,200 bar owners contributing 250 euros annually to help each other foot legal bills.
VWA officials carried out 11,027 smoking inspections in the second half of last year, and "took steps" in 440 cases. Two different courts ruled last year that the ban, seeking to protect staff against passive smoking, unfairly discriminated against one-man operations that employed none.
Those rulings were annulled, and the appeals court in the eastern city of Arnhem upheld the ban`s general applicability earlier this month. Bar owners are seeking to challenge that judgement in the Supreme Court. "It is hard for small bars," concedes Inge Freriksen, a spokeswoman for the Dutch health ministry, adding that a new government may review the law given the recent court defeats.
The centre-right liberal VVD, which won parliamentary elections on June 9, wants bars with no staff to determine their own smoking policies, a party official told.