BELGRADE, Serbia -- Forget about the economic crisis and unemployment, Serbs have another burning issue on their hands -- a smoking ban.
The law restricting smoking that took effect Thursday is rattling the tobacco-loving Balkan nation where every third citizen is a smoker and where tobacco has been part of the daily routine for centuries.
While the law does not impose a complete smoking ban in cafes and restaurants, they must introduce nonsmoking areas and smoking is no longer allowed in offices and public areas such as theaters, cinemas or concert halls.
Neven Boskovic, a Belgrade cafe owner said he had fewer customers than usual, lamented his empty nonsmoking section -- and pointing out his full smoking area.
Nada Jevremovic and her colleagues huddled in a small group outside Serbia's National Museum in downtown Belgrade early Thursday, unable to have their morning coffee and cigarette ritual indoors.
"This is really drastic that we have to go out in the street to smoke," she complained, professing her need for her fix to "calm down."
That wouldn't surprise psychologist Zarko Trebjesanin, who said the ban will be very hard on smokers "who will feel panic and anxiety."
According to the law, individuals violating the ban can be fined up to 5,000 dinars ($65) and business can be handed a fine of up to 1 million dinars. Authorities said they will be tough in implementing the new rules.
The law is a "step forward" for the country that aspires to be an EU member, argued Health Minister Tomica Milosavljevic. He said that "it is important that we try to act differently, to reduce the smoke around us."
The EU says it wants all its member states to ban smoking in enclosed public places, on public transportation and in workplaces by 2012.
Greece has the highest rate of smoking on the continent, with 42 percent of those over 15 smoking and lighting up regarded as a symbol of the nation's disregard for rules. But the government in September imposed a ban that outlaws the habit in enclosed public areas and prohibits tobacco advertising.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reported in July that 2.5 percent of coffeehouse owners and 3.5 percent of their customers had quit smoking since the EU-aspirant had extended a ban on indoor public smoking to bars, restaurants and coffeehouses the year before.
But in Serbia, numerous antismoking campaigns have failed to stop people from lighting up, particularly during the crisis years in the 1990s. Psychologist Trebjesanin said a tough new law could help -- even in smoky Serbia.
"If this could work in so many other countries, why not here?" he said.