Italian smokers were pushed out into the cold — some of them protesting — as a law banning smoking in bars, restaurants, offices and other public spaces came into force Monday.

Opponents of the ban greeted its arrival at midnight Sunday with smoke-fueled parties, while supporters burned small piles of cigarettes in the street and inspected bars to make sure the new rules were being obeyed.

The new law bans smoking in indoor spaces unless they have a separate smoking area with continuous floor-to-ceiling walls and a ventilation system. It is one of the most severe anti-smoking measures (search) in Europe.

Among those fuming at the legislation are bar and restaurant owners who say the new rules will scare off clients and that they don't have the time or money to create sealed-off smoking areas. They have also protested a provision requiring them to report on customers who flout the law, saying it is not their job to act as "sheriffs."

About 26 percent of Italians are smokers, according to Health Ministry figures.

Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia (search), a doctor and former smoker, has warned that transgressors will not be spared. "The police are not joking, they can enter anywhere, including private offices," he told the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

However, in the first two months he said officials would focus on prevention and education, with no sanctions "except in extreme cases."

In an espresso bar in central Rome, waitress Giorgia Pasqualetti complained about having to step onto the street whenever she wanted a smoke.

"Now when I take a break I risk catching a cold every time," she said. "We do not have the space to create a separate smoking room, so the only way to enjoy a cigarette is outside."

The law has also been called illiberal. "I have never lit a cigarette, but now that it's banned I feel like lighting one," lawmaker Alfredo Biondi of the governing Forza Italia party was quoted as telling the ANSA news agency.

Other smokers saw a positive side to the new rules. Marco Zavaroni, puffing on a cigarette outside the Rome library where he works, said that while the new law might not stop him smoking, "it might help me reduce my intake."

"If a restaurant does not have a smoking area I will try to resist, instead of going outside," he said.

Smokers ignoring the ban face fines of up to 275 euro (US$363), while owners of premises that close an eye to smoking risk penalties as high as 2,200 euro (US$2,904).

The rules are strict by European standards.

Norway and Ireland have even harsher legislation that forbid smoking indoors and do not allow for the creation of a room for smokers.

But in other countries that have rules similar to those now in place in Italy — Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and the Netherlands — the catering industry was granted a grace period in order to adjust, or anti-smoking regulations have been loosely or sporadically enforced.

The new rules have received widespread media coverage. Minutes after the law went into effect, TV stations showed the "first victim" of the law; a young man was fined for smoking in a bar in Naples. The man's plea that a cigarette was only normal after a coffee won him no reprieve, and he was fined the minimum penalty of 27.50 euro (US$36).

The law, approved in 2003, was to have gone into force in December, but an extension was granted through holiday period. Bars and restaurants lobbied for more time to prepare no-smoking zones, but have been denied.

The autonomous province of Bolzano, which has broad powers of autonomy from central government control, delayed the law's introduction until July to give restaurants and bars longer to create no-smoking zones, ANSA said.