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The other day I found an empty cigarette pack along the path.  What struck me immediately was how bold the health warning was:

You probably don’t need a translation, but just in case: it says Smoking Kills (literally it says ‘the smoke kills’ but we know what they mean).  This is the message that an Italian smoker will see every time he flips open his pack to take out a ciggie.

It’s been a long time since I smoked.  I remember the rather tepid warnings that the Surgeon General  placed on cigarette packs in the U.S. some years ago.  Are they different now than they used to be?  Nope.  Here’s the sissy warning a U.S. smoker may or may not take note of each time he lights up:

First, it’s on the side of the box where it’s much less obtrusive.  Second, though it informs us that dire diseases are the caused by smoking, there’s no mention of the ultimate price: death.

Not content with simply telling us that cigarettes will kill us, the Italian packs go on to tell us how on the back:

Fatal lung cancer.  There.  Just in case you were in any doubt – your lung cancer will be fatal.  Smoke these things and you will die sooner than otherwise.

So are all the warnings over the top?  It turns out the answer is a resounding no.  Smoking is enormously costly, in terms of money and of life itself.

Infosearchlab.com reports that more than 443,000 people in the U.S. die annually due to cigarette smoke.  Of these deaths, 50,000 are caused by passive (second-hand) smoking.  In China, 2,000 people die of smoke every day – 1.2 million a year.  According to the Corriere della Sera,  70,000-83,000 Italians die every year due to smoking, which works out to about the same per capita number of deaths annually as the U.S.

It’s such a difficult question, isn’t it?  To what point should a government intrude in the behavior of the citizens?  When does a vice stop being something personal and become something public?  I guess given the prevalence of smoking and the expense of caring for all the people it makes sick, government intervention is advisable.  To paraphrase an old nostrum about punches, your right to smoke ends where my nose begins.

An interesting side-note that Speedy mentioned: as recently as 2005 tobacco companies in Italy were mostly owned by the government.  In an Alice in Wonderland twist, the government was promoting and profiting from the sale of cigarettes at the same time they were instituting dire warnings on packages and limiting where people may smoke.

How much warning is too much?  Clearly the Italians are giving a much harsher warning than the Americans.  Recently a U.S. court of appeals found that a Washington DC lower court’s ruling that graphic warning images must be put on cigarette packs violated Corporations’ right of free speech.  (Don’t get me started on ‘Corporations are people.’) The issue was whether the tobacco companies should be required to put images of things like a man breathing through a hole in his neck on the cigarette packs.  The first court said yes; the appeals court said no.  Supreme court, anyone?  The World Health Organization says that pictures are effective deterrents.  Australia has gone to the extreme.  Beginning in December they old familiar cigarette packaging will be gone, replaced by gross graphic images like this:

Photo courtesy of cbsnews.com

How to reduce the number of people smoking in places like the U.S. then, if you can’t require that disgusting pictures be put on each pack?  High taxes is one way.  According to Huff Post this is the route Indiana has taken.  Placing a minimum price on a pack of cigarettes is another (the theory being that people will not be able to smoke as much if they can no longer buy cheap ‘off’ brands).  This is the approach Italy has taken (with some amount of EU difficulty), though there’s  debate about whether or not this approach is effective.

So how much does it cost to smoke?  Prices have sure gone up since I used to put .35 cents in the vending machine in the basement of my college dorm (it was right next to the candy bar machine, making for a complete, if not well-balanced, meal).  That depends upon where you live.  If you’re in West Virginia you can support your habit for $4.84 a pack.  But if you live in New York the same pack will cost you $12.50.  Here in Italy cigarettes cost about E 5 a pack, about $6.

Do Italians smoke more than Americans?  According to the WHO again, 25% of Italian males aged 25 and older are ‘current smokers.’  In the US it is 34% for the same demographic.  19% of women in both countries aged 15 and older are’ current smokers.’  And we won’t even discuss China.

Our own observations suggest that there is a lot less smoking here than there used to be, though we still see both men and women zooming around on their scooters with a fag clutched in their teeth. And it seems that a lot of young people smoke – I guess it’s still considered cool.  Smoking is not allowed here in any public building – no such thing as a ‘smoking section’ in a restaurant.  If you want to smoke, step outside please.

They say there’s nothing worse than a reformed smoker for being anti-smoking.  As a former 2-pack a day person I guess I qualify.  Here’s the thing though – while I may deplore the fact that smokers cost all of us huge amounts of money every year, and while I will run as fast as I can to get away from your smoke, I’ll never blame you if you’re a smoker.  I remember all too well how much I loved smoking, how it was woven into the fabric of my daily life, and how almost impossible it was to quit.  I still miss it.