01.09.2013 From freedom symbol to commonplace addictive substance

Smoking and society. Smoking was still regarded as absolutely normal just a few decades ago. In fact, it was not only accepted, it was positively celebrated, as a "torch of freedom". Nowadays, the wind of freedom is blowing from another direction: for anyone who wants to feel free and enjoy life, smoking is out.

Pictures From freedom symbol to commonplace addictive substance


The global advance of tobacco consumption began with the industrial production of cigarettes in the mid-19th century. With the sudden availability everywhere of tobacco in a ready-to-smoke form, the number of smokers soared dramatically. Until the 1920s, however, hardly anybody smoked in restaurants. This changed when the tobacco industry started promoting smoking as a kind of substitute for dessert – a strategy that was particularly successful in enticing figure-conscious women to light up. During World War Two, cigarettes lost the glamour they had acquired in the early 20th century. Instead, they were elevated into a symbol of comfort and relief from the miseries of war. After 1945, all of Europe was smoking. Among women, the trend was underpinned by emancipation because smoking seemed to represent everything that the women's lib movement was demanding: independence, self-determination and a foray into a male domain.
This nebulous view of smoking was created by the claims of a powerful
tobacco-advertising machine. For decades it promised smokers the freedom and the coolness of a Marlene Dietrich or a James Dean.

From glorification to clear-sightedness
The 1960s saw the first doubts and warnings about smoking when the findings of medical research on the subject were published. This marked the start of a far-reaching social change. The positive image of cigarettes began to crumble. Marlboro Man was unmasked as a nicotine junkie. Smokers were no longer regarded as individualists but as the victims of marketing.

A learning process for society
Society has undergone an impressive change and learning process in the last two decades. Triggered by tobacco control efforts, this re-think has resulted in a far-reaching paradigm shift. Even if advocates of smoking still try to associate it with "freedom", there is a growing realisation that true freedom means "free from smoking".
More than three quarters of all European countries have now introduced bans on smoking or imposed restrictions on tobacco advertising. In Switzerland, too, the majority of the population approve restrictions on smoking. Even smokers are in favour of them. According to the Addiction Monitoring in Switzerland, in 2011, 71% of smokers in Switzerland favoured a general ban on smoking in restaurants, bars and cafés.

9000 deaths a year
And there is no way this truth can be glossed over: the cigarette is "the only consumer product which, when consumed as indicated, kills". Historian Robert Proctor expressed it even more forcefully in an interview in the Tagesanzeiger, a Zurich daily newspaper: "If cigarettes were invented today, they would certainly be illegal." In Switzerland, over 9,000 people die each year as a result of smoking. In addition, smoking generates social costs of over ten billion francs a year.

Non-smokers enjoy life
Given such figures, there is something almost cynical about critics who dismiss tobacco control as pleasure-hating, health-obsessed hysteria. The new trend towards non-smoking and the tobacco prevention campaigns are not an expression of a modern-day puritanism that regards any form of enjoyment as harmful to health or, at the very least, suspect. People who quit smoking are neither victims of a paternalistic society nor sudden disdainers of the pleasurable. On the contrary, giving up smoking means gaining both new enjoyment, and new quality of life. Once the withdrawal symptoms are over, most ex-smokers report an increase in energy, more intense sensory reactions and a new feeling of freedom. They are no longer slaves to their addiction.

The culture of smoking is not yet dead
Though the culture of smoking in present-day industrialised countries may seem to be at the dying-embers stage, it is far from dead. In 2011, 24.8 percent of people living in Switzerland smoked. The last ten years have seen a slight downward trend. But Switzerland is certainly not a smoke-free society, nor is that the aim of the National Tobacco Programme. Its target is to reduce the proportion of the overall population that smokes from the current 24.8 to 23 percent by the end of 2016. That target is still a long way off, even though not smoking has become the social norm.


Joëlle Pitteloud, Head of Tobacco Section, joelle.pitteloud@bag.admin.ch

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