Filtering through the Haze

(Date format correction:  3 September 2013)

When back in the US this summer, someone asked Brett and I what was one unexpected thing we noticed about the difference between living in the US and Luxembourg. 

Brett said smoking.  I said marketing.   (I’ll save the marketing observations for another post.)

You’d be hard pressed to walk down any Main Street in Middle America without seeing a pair of New Balance sneakers, an NFL jersey or Big Gulp.  There may be Bud Light in that Big Gulp, but that guy you’re sharing the sidewalk with will likely not be smoking a cigarette.  Thanks to increasing outdoor smoking bans in the US, as an urban pedestrian you can still smell coffee roasting, foods frying, and if you’re lucky enough to be in a particularly green city like Seattle, compost and chicken coops.  Here in this diesel-fueled country where cars are smaller and pickup trucks are a sight unseen, less exhaust fumes are more than made up for by the billows of cigarette smoke on every sidewalk corner.   The worst smoke outs are outside local high schools where smoke breaks, and PDA, are still the norm.  (Disclaimer: I have not lived in Seattle since marijuana was legalized on the November 2012 ballot.  I have a feeling pot is in the air, and PDA will be making a noticeable comeback.)

Yes, in Luxembourg, smoking is prohibited in all indoor public places and if you time it right, you can avoid second-hand smoke while eating your quiche.  Smoking is prohibited from 12 noon to 14:00h and 19:00h to 21:00h in cafés where meals are served.  (Note my proper use of the 24hour clock.) Here however you can smoke within two inches of a doorway, and because smoking is less stigmatized in Europe than in the US people feel free to exhale into the nape of your neck.   If the primary objective of smoking bans is to limit nonsmoker’s exposure to second-hand smoke in public places, the second objective is to make smokers feel really, really bad.  That secondary objective has not yet caught fire here in Luxembourg, even less so in Paris and southern Europe.

According to the World Health Organization, 27% of Europeans smoke compared to 19% of Americans.  That 8 percentage point delta may not seem like a lot to wheeze about until you consider that every third person you encounter on the street is if not at that exact moment, is at least thinking about, lighting up.   Not surprising is another fact I learned:  while there are more Europeans who smoke, the data also shows that Americans are heavier smokers.  Ah, we Americans once again tip the scales in terms of excess.  Not just fuller bums, but also fuller lungs.

Lest you think otherwise, I don’t hate on smokers.  (My Dad enjoyed an occasional pipe in my youth and I had my own clove phase while working in Taipei.   You can’t work in Asia, be in your twenties, and not smoke.)  Yet I do find it interesting in a culture that prides itself on eating well and looking good, where cycling is sport and walking is transport,  that the “cigarettes are bad for you” message hasn’t quite filtered down.  In fact, what anti-smoking legislation there is appears to have created a new market for un-genius ideas like electronic cigarettes.

One explanation for the drastically different smoking rates across the pond is that Europeans are less likely to believe that smoking is harmful.   I wouldn’t have been surprised if they (especially the French) knew the information, they just passionately disagreed.  Whereas 91% of Americans believe smoking is harmful, only 73% of Germans do.  This is where we Americans need to thank the CDC for those very graphic and emotional advertisements of the dangers of smoking.  Nothing like a horrific image of someone disfigured or smoking through a breathing tube to get you to stub out your cigarette.   

It’s not like cigarettes are cheap here either (though wine is.)  Typically smoking rates decrease as income and education rise.  Not true here in Europe.   One author hypothesized that vanity may be a key factor on why Europeans smoke more.   It’s not just more socially acceptable to smoke in Europe, it still reeks of cool.  Furthermore since smoking suppresses appetite, perhaps it is not only the Mediterranean diet that is keeping those European waistlines in check. 

Anyone got a clove? (Jk. Jk.)