The surprising countries where you can still smoke indoors

A bar in Beijing, where smoking is permitted indoors
A bar in Beijing, where smoking is permitted indoors - alamy

Today’s vote on the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, which seeks to bar anyone born after 2009 from buying cigarettes, is the latest stage in a process that began in July 2007 when the New Labour government made it illegal to smoke in pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and most workplaces.

Though no other nation has gone as far as Britain to outlaw smoking (New Zealand scrapped almost identical plans in late 2023) we are certainly not alone when it comes to phasing it out. Over the past few decades many nations have clamped down on smoking, with regulations often devolved to regional level. There are loopholes and exemptions galore, so when we map it all out we see the world as a varied patchwork of liberties and laws.

The dominant trend, aimed at protecting children and other potential passive smokers, is to ban or severely limit smoking indoors. According to the World Health Organisation’s latest report, 74 countries have smoke-free policies that cover all indoor places, up from just 10 in 2007; 88 countries completely ban smoking in cafés and bars, while 50 countries allow designated smoking rooms.

Interestingly, there’s often no obvious connection between a country’s social values and its attitude to smoking. Albania completely bans smoking in bars and restaurants. Italy doesn’t. South Africa allows up to 25 per cent of a bar or restaurant to be set aside as a designated smoking area, though stricter laws are in the offing.

In Japanese restaurants and bars, smoking is permitted in all areas (although in practice many such places restrict or ban smoking). Danes can still enjoy a cigarette in smaller pubs, but most direct smokers to the streets. In Benin, meanwhile, smoking is banned in all indoor spaces.

In the US, the law changes from state to state, and can vary between neighbouring towns and districts. Economics as well as attitudes to freedom is a factor. Many Las Vegas casinos continue to allow smoking indoors. It’s also permitted in bars, taverns, and saloons where minors are prohibited or that don’t offer food service, in strip clubs and – as you’d expect in business-friendly America – on some floors at tobacco-related trade shows.

Margrethe II of Denmark enjoys a smoke on the terrace in Tivoli, Copenhagen
Margrethe II of Denmark enjoys a smoke on the terrace in Tivoli, Copenhagen - alamy

So common are smoking bans, these days, that it can be quite jarring when you walk into a restaurant on holiday and realise that smoking indoors is still permitted. I remember going to Porto about a decade ago, when smoking was already a social sin in the UK, and my astonishment on seeing a gutter below the counter in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant absolutely brim-full of cigarette butts.

Of course, an indoor smoking ban doesn’t always happen quite as planned. Some German states have banned smoking in bars, restaurants and sports stadiums, but according to the NGO coalition, the Smoke Free Partnership, compliance across the country is limited where laws do apply.

And not every country is clamping down; in some nations, the mood music around public smoking is reversing. In 2010 Bhutan was lauded all over the world for being the first country to ban tobacco sales and smoking in public places. The ban lasted for over a decade but, somewhat ironically, the Covid-19 pandemic “compelled policy makers to change course” and the sale of tobacco was legalised again. Dedicated rooms in bars and discotheques are once again free-to-smoke zones.

If you are looking for a smoke-free holiday, South America is the destination for you. In December 2020, when Paraguay approved anti-smoking legislation, it became the first major region to achieve smoke-free status when it comes to public areas. At the other end of the spectrum, the WHO calls out India, Tanzania and Indonesia as countries that only protect a small percentage of their populations with smoke-free zones.

As an ex-smoker I have to say I broadly – if begrudgingly – approve of the UK’s proposed law, but can’t let go of some fond smoking memories. I still see two InterRail trips I took in the Eighties through the romantic haze of cigarette smoke on railway platforms and can still recall the pungent perfume of black tobacco – exotic, European, a bit dirty.

I also recall a visit to the King Eddy Saloon in Los Angeles, where smokers had to indulge their habit in a closed, glass-walled box inside the bar. You could see the space filling with smoke, like some kind of deathly experiment. Charles Bukowski, a former habitué, would have written a poem about it. And long flights seemed less arduous and more sociable when smoking was permitted. You met more interesting passengers on the back row.

So as the UK clamps down on smoking even further, will tobacco-lovers take off on cigarette-foraging trips, as marijuana-smokers have done for decades in Amsterdam? Perhaps. For now, at least, they still have plenty of options, but they are thinning by the year.