German Smoking Ban Would End a Vicarious Pleasure

Aug. 9 (Bloomberg) — The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.

But this time we aren't talking about the "lamps" of civilization to which Edward Grey, a British foreign secretary, once referred when he spoke pessimistically about World War I.

This time the lights are the lights of cigarettes. This summer, Germany's ruling parties indicated their intention to ban smoking in public places. Germany is late — in the U.S., Ireland, Norway, Malta and the U.K., local or national governments have already acted. But now that Germans are reforming, they are doing so with typical vigor. German bosses are allowed to reject job candidates simply because they are smokers, Spiegel magazine reported this month, citing the Justice Ministry.

There is no reason to waste readers' time explaining why German authorities are doing this. Germans know smoking leads them to the graveyard. Unlike Americans, they have a special phrase for lung cancer: "smoker's cancer." What's interesting is why it took them so long to move. The answer tells us something about both the future of smoking and the inner addict in all of us.

This smoky story starts with World War II, a war that was fueled by cigarettes. The U.S. military gave out packs, or even cartons, to keep GIs going. After the war, U.S. authorities handed cigarettes to the defeated in the belief that cigarettes represented activity that strengthened national recovery. The cigarettes were supplied to worker-incentive programs. "210,000,000 Cigarettes to Aid German Economy," read a New York Times headline in April 1948.

Special Relationship

Germans developed a special relationship with cigarettes. Tobacco staved off hunger, a fact that mattered just after the war, when the average diet was often less than 1,000 calories a day. Soldiers returning from Russia taught their families that a cigarette could feel like supper. Old Reichsmarks were worthless. Cigarettes became a medium of exchange. Some Germans who traded them deemed it crazy to smoke them. To do so would have been the equivalent of smoking a rolled-up $10 bill.

Other Germans did smoke their money — and continued to even after more food and a functioning currency arrived on the scene. The Marxists in the pubs argued, even as they puffed on their cigarettes, that the nasty habit could be blamed on the Marlboro Man, or capitalist oppressors generally.

This explanation was too simple.

Americans had their reasons to smoke, whether for fashion or an act of rebellion against parents — James Dean smoked two packs a day of Chesterfields. The monotony of the suburbs and the factory floor were other triggers. The French smoked to look good. Inhabitants of the Soviet Empire, including East Germans, smoked to escape the sheer grimness of life under the regime.

Count on Nicotine

The great West German reason to smoke, at least in the 1950s and '60s, was that being a German was hard. Pulling off an Economic Miracle was impossible work. Cigarettes provided the break that made impossibility seem possible. West Germans even feared, reasonably enough, that war might come back. If you couldn't count on life making sense, you could at least count on nicotine.

Over the decades, the war anxiety diminished, but smoking hardened into a great German habit, common among workers and intellectuals alike. Now the cigarette had a new role, as the intellectuals' signal that he had something in common with the worker. German shops might close frustratingly early, but German cigarette machines functioned around the clock.

By the 1970s, '80s, and certainly the '90s, Americans were finding other things to do with their hands — clutch cell phones, pop antidepressants, down caffeine. The first Starbucks outlet opened in the early 1970s in Seattle, thereby inventing a new kind of smoke-free cafe. Ben & Jerry's created an ice-cream flavor with the most explicit of names: Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Buzz.

Smoking Capital

But many Germans were still puffing. When I traveled to Bonn in the 1980s, the city didn't feel like the capital city of Germany. It felt like the capital of smoking. The sun shone bright off the Rhine, but not in the politicians' offices. Layers of smoke had long since tinted their windows gray-brown.

In the mind of the former smoker, the sort who fiddles with his Blackberry, Germany occupied a special place. As all former smokers know, giving up smoking is impossible if you don't make yourself little promises, such as: I can smoke again when I turn 80. Or, I can smoke again on Tuesdays in Germany. Many Americans and Brits used Europe as a cheat: they smoked there, but not at home.

Fantasy Ashtray

Others never smoked again, but still liked to think that smoking was happening somewhere. Call it smoker nostalgia. There was something oddly comforting in the thought that Germans were doing their smoking for them.

It's hard to understand why, by the mid-1990s, Germans had not tired of this role. Who wants to cough your heart out from emphysema, even if it is at a spa? And what country wants the insult of serving as a fantasy ashtray to ex-smokers? But the German connection to the cigarette was strong.

That's why Berlin's planned action now is getting noticed everywhere. If Germany could ban smoking, then every government could. No wonder former smokers are anxious. It's becoming clear that while addiction will always be with man, smoking may not. Edward Grey was right: the lights are going out, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.

(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2006 Bloomberg

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