Thank you for smoking

When I was 11 and my parents were divorcing, our mother took us children away to visit a glamorous friend who lived in a villa in the hills above Nerja. I have very vivid memories of this holiday on the cusp of the eighties. Glittering swimming pools and tiny lizards scuttling across hot rocks. Maybe this, combined with earlier childhood holidays in Spain is what hot-wired me to come back and stay.

One of these vivid memories is of visiting the local bar at the bottom of the hill, and seeing a boisterous Spanish family with a serious-faced baby which they were encouraging to smoke their cigarettes. Each puff on the cigarette made the baby splutter and turn purple, and the entire family collapse with laughter.

Fast forward a few years to the end of the eighties when I lived in Madrid as a student. The end of  ‘La Movida‘ (The Movement), as Madrid, like a sleeping beast, rolled over and awoke from the nightmare of dictatorship. Glorious chaos reigned. People smoked everywhere: in Post Offices, banks, on trains, in the metro, and that was just the staff. A statistic I overheard has stuck in my head for all these years- that each year on National No Smoking Day the number of smokers in Spain actually increased. You´ve got to hand it to the them- nobody tells the Spanish what to do. This was a classic example of the deeply anarchic and disobedient element in the Spanish character. ‘Telling me not to smoke, eh? Well, screw you, I´ll do what I like. In fact, I´m going to smoke two at once now, that´ll show you.’ Nanny State? Balls to that!

A familiar sound in the bars throughout the city- a sound that was so hilarious that it almost made you want to go and buy a pack of cigarettes just to be able to hear it- was that of the talking cigarette machines. A smooth, sexy-ish and appreciative female voice used to murmur, ‘Su tabacco, gracias.’ (‘your tobacco, thank you.’) as the packet popped out of the bottom of the machine. Barked at by officious porters, snootily ignored by bank tellers and insulted by shop assistants, at least you could always count on the cigarette machine to be polite and friendly to you.

Fast forward another couple of decades and what has changed? It would be unthinkable to make a baby smoke your cigarettes these days- actively, that is. However there are plenty of babies, toddlers and kids running around your typical Spanish bar even today, while people smoke, happily rotting their innocent little lungs and rolling around on the floor among the fag-ends, screwed-up paper napkins and pipas (sunflower seeds).

Sadly, the cigarette machines no longer speak to you and not only have they been silenced but also restricted in their favours- these days you have to ask the barman/barwoman to activate them with an electronic pager behind the bar- a very sensible measure to ensure under 16´s cannot buy cigarettes. You can no longer smoke in public buildings,  stations or at work. As I race from company to company to give English classes, it is a common sight to see huddles of expensively dressed business people fagging it outside the entrances to shiny new office blocks. Often you have to wade your way through a cloud of smoke to get to the door, and elegant flower-beds and potted plants wither as they are turned into ashtrays, their soil disappearing beneath a pile of fag butts.

For the past five years or so there has been a law in place regulating smoking in bars and restaurants. However, from what I can gather, it is a completely half-arsed measure which is open to many kinds of interpretations. Restaurants over a certain size (say 100 metres square, though this is a guess) must provide a non-smoking section (often a windowless room downstairs by the toilet). Bars on the other hand may opt to be smoking or non-smoking but must advertise the fact. What this means is nothing has changed except a small sticker on the door informing you that it´s ok to smoke here. They are currently debating a ban across the board, to step in line with most of the rest of Europe, but bars and restaurant owners are up in arms about it. There are dark mutterings that tens of thousands of people in the hospitality industry will lose their jobs. Perhaps more realistically and understandably many restaurant owners are angry at the money they had to shell out a few years ago to screen off and sometimes build special non-smoking areas according to regulations, and now they worry they will lose a huge amount of revenue if the law is passed.

The comment I have heard many times from smokers and non-smokers alike is ‘But it´s a Spanish custom to go to the bar and have a drink and a cigarette.  If you ban smoking nobody will go to bars any more. You can’t suddenly take that away from people.’ There´s no point answering facetiously ‘Ah yes, but in Saudi Arabia it´s customary to stone adulterers to death, in parts of Africa female circumcision is traditional, and in the States it´s customary to drink up to 4 litres of Coca Cola a day but it doesn’t mean it´s right or good for you…’

On one point I think we all agree- whatever the rights or wrongs it will not be easy to persuade the Spanish to relinquish their cigarettes. Despite the number of deaths a year from tobacco-related diseases and despite the fact that when you come back from a night out here you stink of stale cigarette smoke: your hair, your clothes, your underwear, even your skin. If you could sniff your own bone marrow that too would probably be impregnated with the cloying smell of smoke.

You may assume that I am writing as a non-smoker. Assume again. I am a ‘social smoker’ struggling to knock it on the head yet again for good. An occasional smoker (or, to use the other common term ‘total fucking idiot’).

I shall leave the last word to my local tobacconists’ where there are 2 discreet signs on the counter. One says ‘We believe it is the personal right of every adult to choose whether or not to smoke.’ and the other, faintly bizarre sign which reads,

‘It is intolerance, not tobacco, which kills people. More people have died in the world due to intolerance than to tobacco.’ Hmm… debatable, and pretty difficult to quantify, but a valiant try. Ok, actually I had to have the last word.

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