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The resilience of the Norwegian smoker

Thomas Hylland Eriksen


Norway Now, February 1997

There are 1.2 million of us in Norway, and the percentage has been stable for years --depressingly so, in many's view. Around this time of the year, thousands of us attend expensive courses, buy artificial aids such as chewing gum and sticking plaster from the pharmacy, try acupuncture, hypnosis and herbal medicines ­ all in a desperate bid to join the dominant majority group of society; usually to no avail. I am, naturally, talking about tobacco smokers; the lepers of contemporary societies, the victims of patronising moralism and of scientific common sense, the enemy within; the sallow-skinned, unhealthy, foul smelling losers.

The tendency in most of the Western world has been obvious for many years. Smoking is becoming a disgusting habit, an inconsiderate and immoral activity, easy to condemn and difficult to defend. Banks, restaurants, offices, universities and an increasing number of private homes are becoming smoke-free. The percentage of daily smokers in some European countries, including the tolerant Netherlands, is down from well over 40 per cent to a quarter. In the USA, smoking has become a stigma associated with low intelligence and low income.
Norway is different. Nowhere have the anti-smoking campaigns been more vigorous and enduring. In 1975, Norway was among the first countries in the world to ban tobacco advertising. Nowhere is medical expertise more united on the perils of smoking, and hardly anywhere is smoking more uniformly disapproved of by public authorities. In trains, smokers are squeezed together like cattle in small, poorly ventilated compartments, one per train; our airlines ban smoking on an increasing number of flights; the universities declared themselves smoke-free years ago; employees of large enterprises are offered free smoke ending courses and in some cases additional bonuses; and cigarettes are so expensive (now more than 50 NOK, or US$ 8, a pack) that the already severely harassed smokers are deliberately plunged into a financial morass as well as a moral and corporeal one. As an irregular commentator on current events, I have never received more hateful response than when I defended, in a newspaper column years ago, smokers' rights.


And yet. Despite the massive anti-smoking propaganda and the nearly total lack of explicit pro-smoking lobbyism, the number of smokers is remarkably stable. Twenty years of strong anti-smoking policies have resulted in nothing! How can we account for this?

One possible explanation could be that the smokers have access to information making them doubt the public health bulletins. For example, Japanese men are great smokers, and still, their average life expectancy is higher than that of West European men. In addition, as a fellow smoker points out: Statistics on the annual number of smoke related deaths are difficult to interpret since they convey no information on the kind of disease suffered from, nor do they state the age of the victims.
Notwithstanding its appeal to some of us, this explanation is not very credible. Surveys indicate that most smokers claim that they would like to quit because smoking is both a health risk and a despised habit. Another interpretation might be that Norwegians resent being patronised by a condescending Big Brother, thus taking pains to do the very opposite of what the health authorities prescribe. This may account for some of the smokers' resilience ­ such as the colleague in Trondheim who began to smoke as an act of resistance ­ but surely not for all. Could it simply be, then, that tobacco is such a powerful drug that its devotees prefer to die slightly younger rather than impoverishing their lives by giving it up?

This may be the case, but still, the smoker's cause is a lost one in the long run, and that is not just because we are all dead in the long run. As a Danish friend and passionate lover of filterless Virginia cigarettes once remarked: "If they had tried to introduce this stuff now, granted our current views on health and the quality of life, it would never have succeeded." And Richard Klein, the author of that wonderful American book on the joys of smoking,Cigarettes are Sublime, admits that he wrote the book as a form of therapy enabling him to give up his cigarettes. In the foreseeable future, Norway will nevertheless neither be a smoker's haven nor a smokefree society, but it may soon experience skirmishes between confident anti-smokers and embittered smokers who are by now thoroughly fed up with literally being left out in the cold.

©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1997