In middle school civics, we learned an important lesson about living in a civilized society: “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” This simple idea was a deep thought to my 7th grade brain, and I would really like the smokers in Greece to learn this lesson. Dear smokers: if that swinging fist contains carcinogens, your right to smoke ends where my inhalation begins.
If you talk to any expat in Greece, and many Greeks themselves, the smoking issue is one of the most frustrating aspects of living here. It is considered rude to not accommodate smokers. Even in a non-smoking home. Even in a non-smoking restaurant or cafe.
When we first arrived in Athens in January, we went to Flocafe for a coffee and a snack (I consider it the Greek version of Starbucks, even though Starbucks shops here are as ubiquitous as rats in a New York City subway, and about as appealing). In the haze of our jet-lag, with the prospect of living for a year in a burglarized and heatless apartment, our mood was pretty sour. When we went into the cafe, the conceptual haze became a real, smoky haze from the many cigarettes being smoked in the cafe, only souring the mood further.
And here is the irony: there were no smoking signs posted everywhere.
So, after being offered to sit further away from the smokers, we sat outside and the manager turned on a heat lamp and explained to us that, even though it is illegal to smoke in the cafe (a new law that went into effect in December 2013), he can’t turn away smoking customers because it would be death to his business. It makes business sense for him to pay whatever government fines come his way to keep his smoking customers. And, he said, the government makes money on the fines because they know that no business will actually enforce the smoking ban. But the true irony is that the government has no money to enforce the ban, so they can’t even send out people to collect the fines.
According to most data sources, smokers in Greece constitute just under 40% of the population. There’s an NPR article, a lengthy WHO Report, and lots and lots of anecdotal evidence. The data shows that non-smokers are the majority. Not a huge majority, but, as every American who remembers Nader Traders, presidential elections have been won by slimmer majorities.
(As a side note, it is unbelievable to me that, when people can’t afford to heat their apartments or pay for the insurance on their cars, they can afford a 2 to 3 pack a day habit. Unlike alcohol, which is pretty cheap, cigarettes are wicked expensive.)
I really wish that more Greeks would rebel against the smoking masses. I wonder: when will the day come that non-smoking is de rigeur in this country of so much history and natural beauty? When are non-smokers in Greece going to rise up and demand that their noses are precisely where the smokers’ rights end?