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Marlboro Man on the Mediterranean – the Spanish attitude to smoking

Marlboro Man on the Mediterranean – the Spanish attitude to smoking

You can discuss this article in our Spain forum here

Cigarette butt

If we're going to talk about the cultural differences between Spain and the rest of the West, you may as well get comfortable. Pull up a chair, order a drink and light a cigarette.

And there it is. One of the first things noticed by expats in Spain: The smoking. Cigarettes are everywhere, a carelessly enjoyed vice in the street, restaurants, bars and shops.

In this way, Spain is the last slice of Eastern Europe in Western Europe. Despite the (semi) ban on smoking implemented in 2006, Spaniards are slow to take their smoking outside. Shop owners are pretty likely to have an ashtray under the counter. Restaurants still lay out ashtrays as part of their table settings. Cigarettes are cheap (around €3 a pack) and generously shared with friends and acquaintances. Smoking here is less a dirty vice, and more a social signifier of generosity.

There are 'no smoking' signs around. The kind that would make your average Brit leave their smokes firmly in their pocket (even if they were light-headed from withdrawal), but they scarcely warrant a second glance from most Marlboro-loving Spaniards, who will comfortably light up while sitting next to one.

In 2009, the Spanish Minister for the Environment, Trinidad Jimenez, had enough. She announced the introduction of a full ban on smoking in all enclosed public spaces, including restaurants. Wanting to catch up with the rest of the EU and UK when it comes to matters of public safety, she claims that 70 per cent of the Spanish public support a total ban.

If that is the case, they are a suspiciously silent majority - or not in the habit of frequenting bars and cafés. Walking into an average café in Spain will, anecdotally, show more than half of the patrons smoking. Walk into a nightclub and this number will spike to more like 80 per cent, largely due to the 'weekend smokers' having a few drinks and smoking a couple of sneaky ones.

The 2006 smoking ban made a non-smoking area mandatory in bars and restaurants of more than 100 square metres in size. Any smaller establishments were allowed to choose whether or not to ban smoking. Most chose not. In fact, of the 350,000 hospitality venues in Spain, less than 45,000 have banned smoking completely.

How does this affect expats? Generally, in one of two ways. The relaxed attitude to smoking is welcomed by some as indicative of the Mediterranean laissez faire approach. Others despise it, and view it as a toxic drawback to living in idyllic Spain.

The difficulty is how to express the expat displeasure towards smoking. Spain is, in many ways, a country that is suspicious of foreigners and Spaniards are generally not inclined to take cultural criticism well. This will apply even to an expat who has been living in Spain for decades. There will always be a sense of 'otherness,' and any sign of negativity towards habits like smoking inside will be met with a sneering, or even aggressive, response. Something along the lines of “if you don't like it, bugger off back to where you came from.”

Most expats are sensitive to this, and tend to mask their dislike of second-hand tobacco smoke. Some do not, and only add to the stereotype of invading foreigners who want to change everything in Spain to suit themselves.

There is much scepticism towards the success of the proposed ban on smoking indoors in public places. Most people in Spain, regardless of their opinion of the ban, are doubtful that it will catch on. The same was also said in other Western countries though, and now dutiful social pariahs huddle in the cold smoking the cigarettes they can't take inside while hoping no-one has stolen the drinks they can't bring outside.

Unions have warned of smaller hospitality businesses facing bankruptcy if smoking is completely banned. This is not only likely, it is certain – it has happened in every country that has introduced smoke-free environments. In Spain, where the global economic crisis has hit harder than any other country in the EU, this is more immediately significant than making inroads into the 55,000 smoking-related deaths each year in the country.

Economic concerns aside, the proposed ban on smoking goes right to the heart of Spanish hospitality. Not just the hospitality industry, but the nature of being a good host. Non-smoking families always have ashtrays. When their smoker friends finish their meal, ashtrays are brought out. There is nothing unusual in this, it is simply part of an enjoyable evening.

As alien as this may seem to outsiders, the average Spaniard is equally baffled by the West's approach to vice. Said one café-goer “I go to Germany or England and there are sharps bins in the public toilets [safe boxes for used syringes]. I can shoot up, but I can't smoke? It's crazy.”

Regardless of whether you support the total smoking ban or not, it is undeniable that the loss of indoor smoking in Spain means the loss of a particular social rhythm. Conversations are disrupted by the comings and goings of smokers from the table, meals are finished more quickly, and the edginess of withdrawal becomes a participant in conversation. The rudeness of denying pleasure to your dining companions is an uncomfortable notion in Spain – and begs the question of whether it is right to sacrifice the social health of a people for the physical health of its individuals.

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