How Spain’s anti-tobacco law ignited the year-round terraza phenomenon

Smoking on a terrace

Can’t life be deceptive at times? Consider this: first-time tourists and other newcomers to this country often marvel at Madrid’s vibrant street life and immediately fall in love with all those pedestrian-friendly walkways lined with outdoor cafés, known as terrazas. Some of these places are out in the open and left to the whims of the natural elements, while others are encased in tarps and clear plastic to allow for unaffected café enjoyment at any time. The visitors may be astonished by the number of places they encounter, but they are probably not surprised they exist. After all, this is what Spain is all about. Right?

Sorry. Way off. Had I sat down three years ago to write an article, this subject would not have even crossed my mind mainly because the vast majority of the terrazas you see today weren’t even around, much less at this time of year. In the past, the Spanish traditionally would set up their chairs and tables when it was so hot out the ice in your glass melted before it reached your lips. Then when the first wave of cool air would come in October, it was “hasta luego Lucas” until the following spring.

Now they are a year-round feature of this city. What has caused this sudden and widespread transformation? Believe it or not, the culprits, or, in this case, the ones to thank, are none other than smokers, those vice-friendly villains so vilified by society.

Here’s why.

In 2005 the Spanish parliament passed an anti-smoking law that some have deemed to be one the most ineffective pieces of legislation ever enacted by a governing body since the days great Hammurabi began forming mankind’s first legal system. In a feeble attempt to appease everyone, the law had so many loopholes you could have strained your spaghetti with it. Six months after it was put into effect, pretty much everything was back to status quo, except for maybe prohibiting tobacco in schools; but that wasn’t saying much.

One of the biggest battles raged in the bar and restaurant sector, where smokers felt most comfortable and non-smokers felt least represented. The 2005 law (sometimes erroneously called La Ley Antitabaco de 2006) required establishments which were larger than 100m² to be conditioned with a smoking section, duly ventilated, of course. That was nothing new in the Western World where designated areas for puffing away have been around for decades. The oddball part of the law had to do with the bars that were smaller than 100 m². They couldn’t have a smoking section, so they had to choose whether they would allow tobacco or not.

Out with your bets. With the threat of losing a sizable chunk of your business looming, which do you think they picked?

Terrace in Chueca

Terrace in Chueca

So, it was back to the drawing boards and five years later, the parliament struck again, this time with a measure that would make a law school professor proud. They wiped out smoking inside all together. This was hardly ground-breaking. Much of the rest of the world had made the conversion without their society falling into mayhem, so why couldn’t the Spanish? Well, they could, and did, and aside from a few initial grumbles and expletives about the matter, the switchover was handled civilly. Soon nonsmokers and even many smokers alike welcomed the cleaner air.

But what could you do if you wanted to light up? Where could you go? Simple. You could step outside, just like everyone else. Owners soon began to realize that if they set up a table or two, even just a barrel on which to lay an ashtray, then business could continue for its customers outdoors.

They also began to notice another more important fact, which was that the weather here was more than bearable in the winter and could be downright pleasant, especially when the sun was out. So, what started out as a simple courtesy gesture towards a part of their clientele flourished into one enormous facelift for the Madrid. The wobbly table with a lone stool next to the door has bloomed into a dozen tables and even, space permitting, whole tarped sections, carpeted with artificial grass and equipped with exotic heaters with dancing flames inside.

Ironically, some of these terrazas are enclosed to such a degree they nearly defy the spirit of the law, but no one seems to be complaining. In fact, everyone seems to benefit: the owners, the smokers, the rest of the customers, and even City Hall, as it nets income from meting out permits to use the sidewalk.

Now that the ball is rolling, there seems to be no turning back. The city is booming with life in a way it had never known. Even if smoking were to be banned outright, the invasion of terrazas would not disappear. Madrid is clearly a gusto with its new look and feel; and so are we!

Brian Murdock

About Brian Murdock

Born in New York City in 1967, I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. I’ve been living in Madrid since 1991 as a teacher and a writer. And I’d say I’m here for the long haul. I love just about every aspect of Spanish culture, except for maybe “callos”!

I’ve published two books on Spain and Spanish wine, and more recently a book about the Camino de Santiago. I have two daughters.

Image Credits: Doug, Turismo Madrid

1 Comment

  1. Melinda

    December 22, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    My vote is for non-smoking terrazas. Very interesting article, Brian.

Talk Back