Smoke and Mirrors

One of the most remarkable changes I’ve experienced (and I think Katie would agree) is the daily presence of smoking. While Katie does work in an environment that allows people to step outside for smoking breaks (and while some of her colleagues do take advantage of this), I do not (and neither do my colleagues). I’ve always worked on school campuses. The last time I saw a lit cigarette, it was in the hand of a young man that I quickly and quietly escorted to administrators. I couldn’t name a single former co-worker that smoked. Granted, they weren’t allowed to on the Holly Springs campus, but I never really heard anyone mention it either.

So it’s not a surprise that in two months, I’ve probably been hit up with more second-hand smoke than I’ve encountered in the last two years. One of the fun things about getting older is watching how certain things evolve and develop. Growing up, my family partook in two activities that constantly had us rubbing shoulders with the old rules for smoking. Hotels for soccer games and restaurants. I have my mother’s response, “No smoking, of course,” ingrained firmly in my memory. In fact, she could say it in a way that made the waitress sound offensive for even thinking that our family would dare to smoke.

If you want more backing for the staunch aggression my mom had against smoking, consider the episode at the Cary Towne Center Mall. My brother, Patrick, and I thought it’d be hilarious (and it was) to buy fake cigarettes at Spencer’s. We “lit” up outside as we waited for my mom to show, puffing sugar plumes into the air dangerously as her Honda Pilot pulled to the curb. I’m still not sure if she put the car in park before jumping out of the car and trying to thrash us as we stubbed imaginary cigarettes into the ground. It was funny.

But now, I’m faced with a not so imaginary circumstance. On every street corner. Outside every restaurant. At train stations and bus stops. Cigarette smoke wafts your way. The European habit has naturally become a Swiss habit. And considering how much of Europe is drawn into business in Zurich, it’s rather prevalent. At first, I thought maybe it was just an anecdotal mistake. I kept bumping into people smoking, but what evidence is that without the hard statistics?

Unfortunately, Switzerland’s in the top 20 for number of cigarettes smoked per adult per year. Somewhere in the realm of 30% of their population actively smokes. About 21% have given up smoking at some point in the past ten years. That leaves just half of the population as non-smokers. (

Here’s the thing. Even though America takes a bad rap for fast food and obesity (as they well should. After all, the Swiss have one of the lowest obesity rates in the world), we certainly made changes to our system to inhibit the use of tobacco products. I remember the changes. You no longer had to request non-smoking, because all of it was non-smoking. The hotels, the restaurants, the campuses.

I remember when UNC changed it’s rules. Instead of stubbing cigarettes against the sides of buildings, half of the foreign languages department would gather beneath the flagpole at the center of campus. At least 50 yards from any building, that was the new rule. I’m not stereotyping the languages department either. I once walked by and saw all three of my former Spanish teachers smoking together. It’s a thing.

I’m not here to sell the Swiss on giving up cigarettes. I’m just shocked how many people continue to smoke in light of what we know about smoking. I did wonder if maybe there’s less advertising against the habit here? Maybe someone who reads will know about the issue from that angle? But as far as I can tell, an entire city is looking at the warnings we’ve found regarding tobacco use and ignoring it. It’s fascinating to me at times, but horrifying at others. I’ll finish with a final glimpse that some people will find a bit unfair:

I sat at Starbucks for 4 hours today. I love to write, I love the free wi-fi, and let’s be honest, they actually give you a lot of coffee compared to local places. So it’s nice. Today, I took it upon myself to time how long I could sit there without someone smoking a cigarette within twenty feet of me. I recorded a grand total of three hours and twenty two minutes with someone lit up in smelling distance. That’s just crazy.

I know statistics obviously compress in an urban setting, but it’s just shocking to me still. Anyways, this is not a condemnation. To every student, friend, and family member, I would always encourage you away from smoking. I know there are reasons and dependencies that come with that package, but the effects are unfortunately and starkly real. You don’t have to see a shocking, voice-box commercial any more to know what can happen when you smoke. So while I’d urge my loved ones to kick those habits, this is much more about a societal viewpoint and something I’ve just found unavoidable during my time here. Would be curious about other people’s thoughts on smoking in foreign countries, etc. and the varying perspectives we have on what’s taboo and what clearly isn’t.

4 thoughts on “Smoke and Mirrors

  1. I think your North Carolina bubble is burst! Having spent the better part of the last three years in Europe (Geneva and Dublin) I have to say honestly smoking doesn’t phase me anymore. It’s the culture. In an ironic twist, the tobacco is still coming from Virginia and NC in some cases. There are carcinogens in the air in both places so pick your poison 😉

    • True enough. I still think it will always bother me. Not a scent I love to smell. I also just think there’s a general inward cringing at the idea of breathing in smoke for me. My body just feels uncomfortable. But hey, I’ve only been here for two months!

  2. Hi Mr. Reintgen! I actually just got back from Italy, and there was a ton of smoking there, too! It was quite shocking, and especially difficult for me to deal with due to my health conditions. Europe is much more advanced than the U.S. on many social issues, but the anti-smoking campaign in the United States has been extremely successful. I would say that smoking is generally frowned upon, even within teenagers. Thank you for the interesting post!

    • Thanks, Rachel. Yeah, I’ve actually noticed a lot of that, too. Young teenagers here regularly smoke. But I don’t remember too many of my students thinking of smoking as “cool”, which does suggest the success of anti-smoking campaigns. Thanks for sharing and I hope your trip to Italy was nice!

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