Smoking At School


I guess that in some parts of the world people will be surprised to know that until very recently (and still now in some places) both teachers and older students were allowed to smoke in designated areas in school grounds here in Switzerland. Recently there have been changes, as a result of which my daughter has found herself at the centre of a little controversy in her school.

But first a little background information about some of the laws and culture related to smoking in Switzerland. Basically for a long time we have been a country of smokers. Laws relating to smoking differ from Canton to Canton (state to state) but there is no minimum age when people are allowed to smoke. In my youth most teenagers smoked and it is not so different now. There are laws relating to the age at which it is legal to sell cigarettes. These laws used to vary from zero to sixteen but now in most Cantons it is sixteen or eighteen. Where we live it is technically sixteen, but the laws are only liberally enforced and still anyone can buy cigarettes from machines in the street.

In my daughter’s school it used to be permissible for students to smoke in a designated area of the school from the age of 14 upwards providing they obtained a letter of permission from their parents which was always followed up by a phone call. Getting such a letter of permission has always been a kind of right of passage. Tina will be 15 soon and has been smoking regularly for about a year (about one pack per week). I had already agreed to give her the letter. However, her school has just decided to implement the law more strictly and forbid all students from smoking in school. (The teachers will still be allowed to smoke in their own room). This has caused many of the students to protest and start a campaign to be allowed to smoke again. Tina has been nominated as their spokesperson. I think this is because although she is one of the younger regular smokers she is seen as a good, well behaved student who usually gets good grades and therefore not “just” a rebellious teenager. The fact that her mother (me) is known to be a teacher too may have something to do with it. I’m not sure that she really wants to be in this position, but it might provide her with some off the curriculum life lessons.

Now I fully understand the school’s position and I fully concede that school should be an environment which promotes healthy living. I suspect that within a few years all students in Switzerland will be forbidden to smoke while they are at school. I don’t think there is much chance my daughter and the other students at her school will be able to change the minds of the school authorities. I suppose overall it is a move in a good direction. However, something will be lost…

Smoking has been part of our culture. Perhaps it isn’t the most healthy part of us Swiss but it has been part of our social and cultural life for several generations. I started smoking about the same age as my daughter and I must admit that smoking with my friends at school and getting that letter of consent from my family was a part of the whole process of growing up and starting to behave and think more like an adult. And being able to smoke at school meant that we didn’t have to sneak out. As a mother I would prefer to think that my daughter can stay within the safety of the school grounds during the day and not have to sneak off somewhere in the break times to have a cigarette. I am also a realist. Banning smoking in school will not make anybody stop smoking. Will it discourage some people from starting to smoke? Maybe, but I doubt it.

In my school the students are still allowed to smoke and I hope that doesn’t change soon. I teach in a school for students who have serious social and psychological problems. Believe me when I say that the fact that most of them smoke is the least of their worries. Often in the classroom environment it is difficult to break down some of the barriers that can make them under-achieve, become anxious, disruptive or even occasionally violent. Yet it is amazing how quickly those barriers can come down over a cigarette in the break time. Psychologically I think that when they see that we accept their smoking, it gives them the feeling that we are accepting them as people who are growing into adults and respecting at least some of the choices they are making. To put it more simply it is a valuable point of connection between us and them. I think it is genuinely therapeutic. And if nicotine remains the worst of their addictions, we call that success.

Well in the meantime my daughter will fight her battle with the school authorities. It is a battle I think she will lose but in fighting the battle she will learn and grow up in other ways. And symbolically at least, she has my letter of permission.