Will the Greeks fail where the Cypriots, Turks and Italians have succeeded?

Those last three countries have all imposed comprehensive smoking bans in recent years, despite vehement opposition from bar and cafe owners, many shops and large sections of the population.

Are the Greeks ready to follow suit? We're about to find out, because today (September 1), a comprehensive ban on smoking indoors comes into effect. Many people here are outraged. Greeks are the heaviest smokers in Europe.

"It's our culture smoking, drinking, and playing cards," says an old man in a neighbourhood kafenio. Through the thick haze of curling grey smoke, his friends nod in solemn agreement.

I'll come clean. I'm a non-smoker. On a personal level, I welcome the ban. But I'm more interested in the wider politics of the issue, and what we can glean from this about where Greece might be heading.

Abject failure

Let's go back a year in time, to the summer of 2009. There I was, in the Al Jazeera Athens bureau, busy preparing a report on the impending Greek smoking ban. Yes, dear reader, we have been here before.

Just over 12 months ago, the previous New Democracy government imposed its own smoking ban. I went to interview the then-health minister, Dimitris Avramopoulos. He oozed sincerity. Oh yes, he explained, because of the "will and determination of the government and the authorities", he was sure the law would succeed.

But the truth is that the 2009 smoking ban, (come to think of it, like most of that government's policies in its final years in office) was an abject failure. A few bars and restaurants  made an effort to comply, but most carried on just as before.

At the time, owners told me that nobody from the government had bothered to get in touch, to explain how the new law would work, how it would be enforced, and what the penalties were for violating it.

It was ridden with so many confusing exemptions and generous loop-holes that it is hard to avoid the cynical conclusion that it was designed to fail. It was, in fact, a classic piece of Greek legislation, that combined a token effort at complying with EU targets ("yes, Brussels, we are good Europeans") with a sly wink to the domestic electorate ("don't worry, fellow Greeks, we're doing this just to look good, but in a couple of weeks the dust - or should that be smoke - will have settled, and we'll all be able to carry on as usual").

In short, the insincerity and lack of enforcement that accompanied the 2009 Greek smoking legislation may not have been terribly significant in its own right, but it was indicative of much that had gone wrong in this country. If laws (and taxes, for that matter) were inconvenient, they were simply ignored. Everyone was out for himself, and assumed the most selfish motives of their fellow citizens. A poisonous mentality, that, we now know, helped drive Greece to the edge of bankruptcy.

Painful sacrifice
 
And that is why the 2010 smoking ban is rather important. There is more at stake here than its mere impact on the economy, or even on standards of Greek health (although, presumably, incidences of lung cancer and heart disease will fall).

There is also a symbolic significance. As George Papandreou, the prime minister, and his ministers have repeated on countless occasions in the recent months of economic crisis, the credibility of the Greek government is on the line. He has acknowledged that one consequence of the years of corruption and misrule is that any Greek government is instinctively (and some might say, deservedly) distrusted in Brussels, and by its own people.

In the boom years that followed entry into the Eurozone, this did not appear to matter too much. Now, when a government is trying to implement difficult reforms, and is asking Greeks to make very painful sacrifices, it matters a great deal.

Mr Papandreou is trying to end the culture of tax evasion and corruption that played an important part in Greece's downfall. In essence, he's trying to get Greeks to take laws seriously. So that's why I'm not sure he can afford to introduce such a controversial one unless he is absolutely determined to enforce it. Pachos Mandravelis, of the newspaper Kathimerini, has written a good piece on this here.

The early signs are not encouraging. Just like in 2009, the Greek newspapers are full of bar and restaurant owners saying that nobody has been in touch to explain how the new law will work. No visit from a helpful official, not even an information pack through the post.

Perhaps some in the government are advising Mr Papandreou not to be too rigorous with the smoking ban at a time when so many Greeks are facing great hardship. I can understand that argument. Cracking down on smoking may well cost PASOK votes in the upcoming local elections. Many Greeks will feel it is one harsh measure too many, at a time when austerity measures are biting, unemployment is rising, and there is so much to worry about.

Fair enough. In that case, the government should not have tried to impose the ban. But it's too late now. As of today, smoking in almost every indoor public place is, in theory, illegal. Greeks will be watching how their government handles this issue, because it is a test of its sincerity in its stated aim to take this country in a new direction.