Do People Still Smoke?

A few years ago I took a 10 day trip to Europe with my daughter. It was my first real vacation in probably a decade, so I went all out with it, or at least as all out as I could afford at the time. Ten days spread out over stops in Rome, Florence, Milan, and finishing up in Zurich, Switzerland, making sure to see as many historically significant tourist traps as possible along the way.

It was an awesome trip, and I’d jump at the chance to go back and do it all again. But, despite the overload of cool foreign culture, food, and sights, there was also a dark underbelly over there that, quite frankly, caught me by surprise. Especially in Italy, where….

Nearly. Everyone. Smokes.

I didn’t pick up on it at first. I’d see packs of Italian dudes standing outside restaurants or cabbies at the corner, all of them with cigarettes in their hand. But I’d grown up seeing the same thing as a kid. It wasn’t unusual.

It didn’t hit me until we went to the train station in Rome, and walked into a literal wall of second-hand smoke. The station itself is just a huge room with train tracks, platforms, and ticket booths, and the far end (where the trains come in) is open to the outside. But even all that space and (questionably?) fresh air couldn’t keep clouds of cigarette smoke from following us around. I’m pretty sure 90% of the people in that building were taking a drag. Want to feel like you’ve failed as a parent? Take your then-eleven-year-old daughter to a run-down river barge casino, sit her in between two chain-smoking, leather-skinned old ladies, and you’ll probably feel about a quarter as bad as I did that day.

Full disclosure, I hate smoking. Always have. Never touched a cigarette in my life and I never will. In fact, hate might not be a strong enough word, so let’s use loathe instead. Growing up here in the US, though, smoking was a pervasive little bitch. You couldn’t go to a restaurant as a kid in the 80s without worrying how close you might be to the smoking section. Bars and clubs in the 90s were a mine field of pretentious 20-somethings with a pack in one hand and a lighter in the other, although we always somehow managed to fight through that toxic mix of tobacco and cologne/perfume thanks to the mask of alcohol and the lure of the other sex. It wasn’t until you got a whiff of your clothes the next morning that you fully realized the price you paid.

But somewhere in the 2000s everything slowly started to change. New rules and regulations crept up in every corner of society, pushing smoking farther and farther out to the fringes. I don’t know a restaurant in town that has a smoking section anymore, and I think city ordinances have banned smoking almost everywhere else. I remember some uproar at the time, but that died away real fast. I doubt there are any organized movements to “Get Smoking Back” in our eateries and grocery stores and Montessori schools, and if there are, well…

[Quick note – visited San Antonio for the weekend and noticed some people smoking in a few restaurants, so the no smoking ordinances there might not be as tough as in Dallas, but even so I didn’t see a TON of people doing it.]

The point I’m trying to make here is that somewhere along the way, smoking receded into the background for me. There were slowly-dwindling smoking sections at work, and some people with their arm hanging out the window during rush hour, and that was about the only time I saw someone holding a cigarette. A despicable practice that had surrounded me all the way into my twenties and early thirties suddenly faded away so effectively that I didn’t even think about it anymore.

But that Europe trip (literally) blew it all back into my face. It was such a stark contrast to American life that it rattled me. And ever since then I feel even more aware of how out of place smoking seems to be here in the US. I saw a few women standing outside the main door of an office building earlier this week, finishing off their cigarettes before walking in, and I asked myself the same thing I always do these days when I see someone smoking…

Why?

At this point, it’s clear that the cons MASSIVELY outweigh the pros. You increase your chances of cancer, you destroy your lungs, you stain your teeth, you STINK.

(seriously, smokers REEK and they seem to be the last ones to realize that…)

And you spend a small fortune just to buy cigarettes these days. But it’s still happening, albeit in smaller and smaller pockets. So I guess my question at this point is “Why are you still doing it?” Why still smoke? Why even go to the trouble in this day and age? Is it the high? Or is it the desire to be a contrarian? There’s nothing wrong with either answer, I guess. I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that there might be a plausible explanation for something so detrimental.

I get that habits are hard to break. I’m in my 40s now and I STILL eat cereal for desert (I can’t quit you Multi-Grain Cheerios!). And I get that some people only do it irregularly these days, like with a beer, or after a short jog. But I’m such a rational/pragmatic/structured kind of guy that it would be extremely difficult for me to do something that destructive in the face of overwhelming evidence, so I have trouble seeing how other people can do it. Now that I think about it, though, sugar is kind of in the same category. Large amounts of sugar slowly destroy our bodies over time, too, but we’re even less aware of how much we ingest of that every day. Seriously, go check the foods you eat (or drink) on a regular basis and be prepared for some serious sticker shock. In fact, I should do a second post on the crazy amounts of sugar that goes into our bodies, so maybe I’ll table this discussion for now…

I also have a secondary question, though, and that is, why is it so popular in Italy? I told my daughter while we were over there that Italians must not have gotten the memo that smoking isn’t cool anymore. Is it a lack of awareness and education? Does Italy not have a Surgeon-General, or giant billboards of diseased lungs? Once we got to Switzerland, the percentage of smokers dropped significantly. Probably about the same as what you see in the US if I had to guess, although I was only in the touristy areas. Maybe it’s a localized or cultural thing.

For some reason I have no problem imagining a pack of Russians standing around on a cold street corner, lighting up cheap cigarettes and lamenting being ruled by a guy named Putin. And I’m pretty sure I read an article not that long ago about how smoking is pretty pervasive in China. Both are large countries, with huge populations, and at least some level of technical and medical awareness, so it’s not like they don’t have access to the same information we do. Maybe those countries don’t have the same cultural bias against it that seems to have taken root here.

Maybe we were fortunate enough to have a number of really small, gung-ho, anti-smoking groups that quickly ballooned their message so loudly that city and county and state leaders just couldn’t ignore it anymore. If that’s the case, then bravo to those people. It couldn’t have been easy to root out something that a huge percentage of the population did on a regular basis. I’ve seen Mad Men, I know how bad it was.

So for you anti-smoking campaigners, I present you with a [/slowclap]. You’ve saved lives, you’ve lessened my irritation, and you’ve made the world a better place. Now go treat yourselves to an Italian vacation!

P.S. Before I go, I have to ask two more questions. First, what happened to all the former smokers? Did they quit? Do they just smoke at home? I’m genuinely curious about that.

And secondly… Am I being completely condescending to people who still smoke?

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