Smoking in America and Europe

By Tina

I have recently been on a school exchange trip to New York, and then I stayed on for a few extra days with my family. I had been looking forward to the trip for a long time and it was very exciting and interesting. Of course I noticed lots of cultural differences between Switzerland and America but for this blog I am just going to talk about the different attitudes to smoking, but it does involve other things as well.
There were sixteen people in our group, aged between sixteen and nineteen plus two teachers who were about thirty years old. Altogether there were ten women and eight men. Twelve of us were regular smokers and another three were occasional smokers. So the first thing we noticed when we got off the plane after a very long journey was that it is very difficult to find anywhere you are allowed to smoke. Inside the airport it was impossible and even outside it was difficult to find a spot where people didn’t shout at us for smoking. Not the most friendly welcome considering we’d been about ten hours without a cigarette and some of us were a bit desperate!

We stayed with host families. My host family were lovely and very hospitable. The family consisted of a mother and father and two children a bit younger than me, the girl was 15 the boy was 13. Non of them smoked, which was okay and it would never have occurred to me to smoke in their home anyway. However, on the first day the father had a private chat with me and said he knew it was normal for Europeans to smoke but he would appreciate it if I never smoked in front of his children. I agreed of course.  Later that evening he gave me a key and an ashtray and showed me how to let myself out into a back ally behind their house so that I could smoke after the children had gone to bed!

It did make me feel a bit strange though, as if I had to lie and keep secrets from the children of my host family. Truthfully I never smoked in front of them, but of course they weren’t stupid and they knew I smoked. I got on well with the daughter and I found out that she did smoke sometimes. I felt like I was keeping secrets from everyone. It also seemed strange because when I was her age I was already smoking regularly and I didn’t have to keep it secret from my mother or my family; they just accepted it as part of growing up. I don’t think the daughter of the family felt comfortable about keeping her smoking secret from her parents, I think it just made a barrier between them in what was in all other ways an honest and loving family.

The subject of smoking came up in a class discussion we had at the exchange school in New York (well New Jersey actually, we were just across the border from New York City). This discussion made me see clearly the difference in attitudes to smoking we had compared with our American hosts. To sum it up we had the attitude that smoking “can” be bad for your health and that smokers are more likely to get some diseases, but that smoking is a lifestyle choice that has some advantages as well as the well known disadvantages. The Americans seemed to think that smoking was “always” bad for your health and that you will certainly die of a smoking related disease if you start smoking. Moreover they thought that only stupid, bad or rebellious people ever started smoking. They seemed a bit perplexed that we were not particularly stupid, bad or even rebellious!

One thing that seemed odd to me was that both at school and in our host families they didn’t seem to think it was odd that you could have a gun in the house, but they thought cigarettes were really dangerous!

Another thing that seemed odd to me was the political and philosophical attitudes. We will not mention Donald Trump, but generally in Europe we get the impression that Americans are (or think they are) more libertarian and individualistic than us. But when it comes to personal choice about smoking, it doesn’t seem that way. They seem determined that everybody should have the same opinion on that subject.

When the school part of the trip was over, Sophie and Cassie flew out to join me for some shopping and sightseeing for a few days. For that part, we booked into a hotel. I thought at least there we would be able to book a room where we were allowed to smoke. But it seems no such rooms exist anywhere in New York! Not only that, but there wasn’t even a smoking area in the hotel lobby. We had to go outside to smoke and even in the street there seemed to be lots of places where smoking was forbidden or where we got disapproving looks from people.

One evening my mother Sophie got into an argument with a total stranger about smoking. We had gone out to eat in a nice restaurant “downtown” and Sophie and I popped out for a cigarette in the street (because you couldn’t smoke in the restaurant obviously). This woman started talking to us but when she found out we were a mother and daughter she started criticising my mother for allowing me to smoke at all (I’m 17 FFS!) and she accused Sophie of being an evil woman who was leading her own daughter to death! I had to drag Sophie back inside before she could fully demonstrate her vocabulary of English swear words!

I suppose the Americans think they have the right attitude to smoking and that in Europe we have got it wrong. But even though I had a great time in the USA and really liked many of the people I met (especially my host family) I came away feeling very European and actually quite pleased to be European. It’s just my opinion but I think we are actually more grown up and more open minded over here. And I don’t think our lives are any shorter than the clean living, non-smoking Americans.

After Smoking At School

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Having read through what I have written below I feel I should apologise a bit that this is less a post about smoking in particular and more a celebration of the fact that my daughter is growing up and blossoming in a way that is very pleasing to myself and Cassie and makes us proud.

This is a follow up to my post “Smoking at School” in which my daughter found herself leading a student campaign to retain their right to smoke in designated areas of the school grounds; something which had been normal here ever since the days when I myself was a school student. Rather than repeat everything which went before I will direct readers to the previous post and continue here with what happened next…

Tina took part in several meetings with the other students at which various suggestions were put forward; some a bit wild including demonstrations, writing to several magazines and having a ” smoke-in” protest in the student common room. There were a couple of meetings with the principle and other teachers at which Tina was “volunteered” to be the student spokesperson. Tina said that some of the teachers were sympathetic to the student’s case but it was clear that for legal reasons there wasn’t much hope of progress. Finally Tina was called in for a meeting with the principle at which she was offered a deal of sorts.

The principle said that they couldn’t go against the legislation of the Canton which now technically forbids the sale of cigarettes to people under 16 but that students who were sixteen or older could be allowed to smoke in the area the teachers are still allowed to use. This would mean that more than half the students currently complaining would in effect still be allowed to smoke. However some who were not yet 16,including Tina, would not be allowed. Tina asked how seriously it would be taken if she and a few others continued to smoke in the teachers area anyway; after all, she does have her mother’s letter of permission. Could they just “turn a blind eye” to it? She was told that would not be possible since the school must be seen to be obeying the law and promoting a good health and anti smoking stance in public. Thus if she and the other younger smokers continued to smoke on the school grounds or if they got caught sneaking out of the school during the break times there would have to be punishments which would look bad on their school records and letters to their parents which could be embarrassing for them.

Tina was asked to try and “sell” this solution to the students who were protesting because it was the best and only deal they were going to get. And that is what Tina did. The older students were quite pleased with the result, the younger ones not so much. In fact Tina is getting on much better with the older students who are more at her level of maturity. She gets annoyed with some of the ones that are closer to her own age.

“And will you keep to those rules?” I asked her.

“Probably, at first anyway.” She said. “I’m not so addicted that I can’t wait a few hours for a cigarette. I suppose I might sneak out somewhere for a cigarette once in a while when the fuss has died down. To be honest it’s not so important to me to smoke at school. I think some people do it just to show off.”

“And you?”

“I don’t think I’m showing off. I’m just being me. I smoke. I always knew I would. It’s my choice. I like it. And it is kind of a sign to people that they can’t categorise me. I’m a good student but I’m not a sweet and harmless person. I don’t want the teachers to put me in a box and I don’t want my friends to do it either.”

Readers of our other blogs will know that that stems very much from our family’s philosophy. And I have respect for the choices my daughter makes. You know I didn’t think it would be possible to love my daughter more than when she was a very sweet and innocent child pretending to be a vet with her toy animals, but actually I love the woman she is becoming just as much if not more. She is somebody I admire and respect. She is somebody I would choose to have as a friend. Some mothers seem to dread coping with teenage daughters. Maybe I’m lucky. Maybe I’m strange. But I am enjoying this new stage in our relationship.

About smoking; I accept that she smokes. We all smoke in our household.

Earlier tonight I mentioned to her that I might write about these things in this blog.

“Oh yes. Well if you do, you can use this picture. And don’t pixelate it or blur it or do anything weird like you usually do. I’m not ashamed of who I am or what I do and you shouldn’t be either. Oh and you don’t have to worry about protecting my identity either. I’ve put worse things on my Facebook page!”

Well I’m still the Mum and we will be having a grown up mother and daughter chat about that!

Smoking At School

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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.

Sophie