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German Government Approves Partial Smoking Ban

Germany's Cabinet on Wednesday approved a plan to ban smoking on public transport and in federal buildings, but left open the possibility of special rooms being set aside for smokers.

The government also approved a ban on cigarette sales to the under-18 age group -- raising the age limit from the current 16. The legislation, which still needs parliamentary approval, is slated to take effect Sept. 1.

Over recent months, Germany -- traditionally one of Europe's most nicotine-friendly countries -- has been moving tentatively toward curbs on smoking, although its rules appear set to fall well short of more draconian measures being implemented elsewhere in Europe.

"I think a lot of people can, literally, breathe easier now," Health Minister Ulla Schmidt said. She added, though, that "so long as a sufficient number of rooms is available, special rooms can -- but don't have to be -- designated for smokers."

The ban would apply to buses, trains, stations, aircraft, taxis, federal courts, ministries and other government buildings. Schmidt said offenders could face a fine ranging from 5 euros to 1,000 euros ($6.60 to $1,320).

German efforts to ban smoking in all public places suffered a setback last December amid concerns over who is responsible for them: the federal government or the country's 16 states.

Last Friday, state officials agreed in principle on a smoking ban in public buildings, including theaters and cinemas. Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed that agreement as "more than I expected."

However, the states left open the possibility of allowing separate smoking rooms in restaurants, and at least two regional governments would like to allow exemptions for bars. It remains to be seen when they might implement legislation.

"We have done what we can at the federal level," Schmidt said Wednesday. "Together with the decisions that were taken last week ... I am sure that, in the course of this year, we will get comprehensive protection for smokers in Germany."

While it will be up to individual authorities to figure out whether to set aside smoking rooms, Schmidt said smoking will be banished entirely from the rails since the chairman of state-owned railroad Deutsche Bahn said he plans to make all its trains entirely smoke-free.

Germany's moves have contrasted with those in countries such as Ireland and Italy, where smoking is totally banned in bars and restaurants.

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