Story by Alexandra Cass
I remember my first cigarette in Prague. Hell, I remember my first 50 cigarettes. It was a warm night earlier this year and I’d just recently arrived to the city. After stumbling around as newcomers do, we ventured in to the Prague Beer Museum, just off Old Town Square; a bar in a touristy area, but with a local feel to it. I was greeted at the door by a hazy cloud that seemed to follow me around all night, clinging to every surface, infusing my hair and clothes with its distinctive scent. My eyes felt it, my nose felt it, my lungs felt it. Four months later and I’m still adjusting to the secondhand smoke.
Prague is a beautiful city. It is both aesthetically and culturally cozy, romantic and indulgent—that is, when you can see through the haze at whatever pub or café you happen to have wandered into.
While Prague hosts some of the best pub experiences in Europe, they’re not for the faint of lungs. Smoking is entirely legal in restaurants, bars and pubs all over the city, only restricted at owners’ discretion. Pub culture in the Czech Republic is characterized by an enduring dynamic duo: a beer and a cigarette shared amongst friends. It is, after all, the nation with the world’s largest beer consumption per capita.
Just this year, Czech President Milos Zeman informed the Czech public that smoking as an adult now poses no health risks. Even if this statement were true, it still wouldn’t account for the 40 percent of Czechs aged 15-18 who smoke, according to recent data from the National Institute for Public Health. What’s more, the number of smokers has risen about five percent in the last decade, and the average age at which Czechs have their first puff has gone down to age twelve.
However, like many other social issues in the country, smoking culture is much more complex than it may seem. In contrast to politicians’ rhetoric and the vibe you might get at a local pub, the majority of Czech citizens do not share Zeman’s affection for cigarettes, and would actually support stricter anti-smoking policies that extend past certain public places like hospitals and tram stops.
So what’s stopping a ban? Naturally, the economy is a factor. The revenue from cigarette companies is substantial, and critical to a nation that’s still relatively new to the world of capitalism. Just as their American counterparts, cigarette company lobbyists are practiced at wooing government officials when it comes to discussing anti-smoking legislation. And don’t forget that the Czech Republic’s 50-year totalitarian communist regime ended just in 1989—personal freedoms of any form are valuable assets in Prague, and some would argue that smoking in public is, in fact, a civil right.
While a ban in the near future isn’t likely, there are more and more places popping up where you can enjoy a Czech beer smoke-free. A few favorites include: Cafe v Lese, in Krymská (Prague 10), is popular with local Czechs and offers original, creative – and strong – cocktails; Closer to Old Town Square you’ll find La Casa Blu (Prague 1), a friendly hidden gem complete with a Latin American cuisine; For a more traditional Prague experience, Lokal Blok (Prague 5) has cold Pilsner, an excellent menu full of homemade Czech favorites…and a rock climbing obstacle course in the basement.
This story appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Baedeker.