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Smokers Feel the Pain in Spain

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On January 2nd, as if imposing a seriously sobering New Year’s resolution on everyone, the government of Spain banned smoking in almost all public places—including bars and restaurants—imposing hefty fines for non-compliance.

I sat here in the U.S. hearing the news, stunned by the notion of smoke-less Spain. I spent some of the craziest days of my youth hanging out in Spanish bars, cafes, and discotheques. In those places and just about everywhere else, there was always one absolute: lots of smoke, enough to make your throat raw. Coming home from a night out meant clothes and hair reeking of smoke fumes, even the occasional cigarette hole or two burned into your jacket or dress.

Among college students, it was customary to break open a new pack of Fortunas or Ducados and offer one to everyone in the group. The act of sharing smokes consolidated friendships and made new friends. Being a foreigner and a non-smoker there felt awkward. How many times did someone approach me on the street fumbling with a cigarette and asking, “¿Tienes fuego?” before I figured out they were asking me for a light. It wasn’t long before I accepted a cigarette and eventually worked up to a two-pack-a-day habit.

Friends today are astounded to hear that I smoked so heavily while in college. I eventually quit after I returned to the U.S., where smoking restrictions pushed smokers outside and into corners, isolating us from everyone else. Being a social creature, I couldn’t stand being demonized and ostracized by strangers. But an addiction is an addiction. For that reason, I sympathize with smokers who have to get used to this new Spain. They know smoking is bad for them. Seventy percent of smokers there say they want to quit. And I think that a good number of them will for the same reasons I did.

Interested in hearing how they were taking the new ban, I interviewed Spaniards living in Spain and asked them how it was going. Apparently not well for some. One young man in Madrid told of a relative of his who keeps forgetting about the 60-euro fine (about $77), stopping himself a number of times from lighting up outside businesses and parks. “They should have done this gradually,” he remarked, “People are taking it hard, using it as another way to complain about the government.”

Much like the U.S., a few years ago, Spain began by mandating smoking areas in bars and restaurants of a certain size or for smaller ones, giving the option to the owner of posting a sign to declare an establishment smoking or non-smoking. According to statistics, about 70% of Spaniards are non-smokers. The consensus in my informal poll was that in the long run everyone believed it would be for the greater good. Smoking rates in Spain has been declining over the last few decades but newer smokers are increasingly women and young people which concerns the government. Not only that, but according the WHO (the World Health Organization), as far as consumption of tobacco goes, as opposed to number of smokers, Spain is one of the highest in volume per smoker in Europe.

I wish them luck. I think it’s a great step forward and hopefully a number of smokers will be motivated the same way I was to lay off the smokes for good and breathe freely.

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About Birgit Nazarian

  • Hey David!:-D This is hilarious. What a coincidence. There are several of us from the Granada group on Facebook, come and join us!

    I agree with you, I think everyone will manage to get used to it. Spain has certainly changed in so many ways since we studied there!

  • David Broome

    I, too was one of those non-smoking young American students who spent a wild year in Spain. Like many of my peers, I also picked up the smoking habit -if only because it made socializing so much easier. Spain has long been -until recently, apparently- a smoking culture.

    Several months after returning home I discovered a half-used pack of Fortunas buried deep in an inner pocket of a suitcase I had with me during that year abroad. I wasted no time finding a light, and went on a long walk, smoking the last of these now-stale Fortunas. It’s amazing the way aromas can stimulate the memory. Walking on the same streets I’d known since childhood suddenly felt so cosmopolitan -so European. With a Fortuna in my mouth, I half-expected to hear the touts of a blind lottery ticket seller (a sidewalk fixture throughout Spain), or see an old woman all dressed in black, just returning home from the bread stand.

    Spain without smoke seems hard to imagine, but if there’s any country that can adjust to sweeping changes in a short amount of time -it’s Spain. They’ll do it; they’ve dealt with bigger demons than kicking the habit.

    On a more personal note- I stumbled onto this article when I was web-searching for some perspective about the sudden restrictions on smoking in Spain. It seems very likely that the writer of this article and I were in the same place in Spain at the same time -and even part of the same study-abroad program. I like your writing, Birgit!

    Take care,

    David Broome
    (Granada via Central College, 1986-1987).