Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


Outside the U.S., Smoking Is Still Hot

By Wolf Blitzer, SAIS '72
Senior White House Correspondent, CNN

WASHINGTON--In the new democratic, market-oriented Warsaw, there are billboards all over the place promoting a rock concert--sponsored by Marlboro. The ads are on the walls of kiosks, where Marlboros are sold, and the sides of buses, where they're presumably not.

My professionally trained skeptical mind immediately wonders whether that cigarette maker is trying to lure young people; hook 'em while they're vulnerable, as anti-smoking advocates would have us believe. Probably, I conclude, but even if so, it may not be all that necessary--since virtually everyone, young, old, and middle-aged, in this post-Cold War Europe still seems to smoke, just as they did during and before the bad old days of the Cold War. On this front, things have not really changed--other than the fact that there are many new Western brands competing with their once-communist rivals. Advertisements for Camels are also all over the place.

All this became obvious to me while covering President Clinton's visit to Warsaw, Riga, Naples, Bonn, and Berlin in July--and to Italy, Britain, and France the month before for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. It's impossible not to reach that conclusion, whether in Western, Central, or Eastern Europe. They love to smoke over there.

Forget about "no-smoking" sections at restaurants; or "no-smoking" rooms at hotels; or "no-smoking" rental cars. You can ask, but you'll get very strange looks. I raised the concept of secondary smoke on several occasions, but it's alien to these people. It's all one big happy smoking zone. I am shocked to see even pregnant women smoking out in the open.

They have smoking sections on planes. On a flight from Zurich to Warsaw, the smoke was both in the air and seemingly embedded in the seats. I wondered how the flight attendants could bear it. Several told me they themselves smoke and are used to it.

The contrast with the current situation in the United States is stark. Things really have changed here over the past two decades. You have to spend some time abroad to appreciate it. Those of us who don't smoke--and don't really like the smell of smoke--have become spoiled. We can easily forget how things used to be. For the most part, we don't have to endure it anymore.

That is not the case in Europe--and almost everywhere else around the world. Last year, I was in Japan and Korea where smokers rule. The same is true in the Middle East. Political differences aside, Israelis and Palestinians love to smoke and don't seem inclined to stop, despite some uphill efforts by small and vocal anti-smoking groups. There are inroads in a few of the more industrialized nations--Australia, Britain, and to a certain degree even France, where smoking is still a national treasure. But my guess is that it will take a long time for the rest of the world to follow the U.S. example.

As I sit outdoors on a beautiful government-maintained lawn in Bonn awaiting the start of a joint Bill Clinton-Helmut Kohl news conference, a young German photographer kneeling in front of me checks her lens--with an unfiltered Camel in her mouth, the smoke easing its way toward my face. She is in her early 20s and I ask her why she smokes. Her answer: She likes it, and in any case, it helps her keep her weight down.

Things have changed in the United States, but young people still start smoking--especially teenage girls. A few weeks before leaving for Europe, I confronted one in suburban Washington D.C. "Why are you smoking?" I asked. "Because I like it," was her reply, and it helps keep her weight down.

Despite all the warnings, all the public service advertisements, all the hype, young Americans are still starting to smoke. Kids my daughter's age--13--are trying it, even as we did 30 years earlier. But when we lit up, we didn't know the full extent of tobacco's dangers.

My own guess: We're still very much in the midst of a sweeping change, even if the rest of the world doesn't yet show much desire to catch up.

Wolf Blitzer has spent nearly a quarter of a century covering breaking news in the Middle East. In 1979, he accompanied President Jimmy Carter to Egypt and Israel during the final round of negotiations that resulted in the signing of the peace treaty. During the Persian Gulf crisis, he served as CNN's around-the-clock correspondent at the Pentagon.

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