Finland No Longer Passive About Secondhand Smoke
HELSINKI, Finland--American travelers seldom get as far as the baggage claim area when arriving on a visit to just about any city in Europe before being struck by what may be the continent's biggest culture clash with the United States: smoking.
While most U.S. public buildings and all its airliners have been smoke-free for years, it remains customary--and seldom commented upon--for European smokers to tumble off an overseas flight with cigarettes and lighters at the ready.
But Finland, frightened by dismal health statistics and freed up by a booming economy that allowed more investment in health care, has broken with the live-and-let-live attitude toward smoking that prevails on the continent. It recently became the first European country to classify passive smoke as a carcinogen and oblige employers in this heavily unionized society to protect their workers from the inherent risk of cancer.
New measures introduced this spring that prohibit smoking in most public facilities and require bars and restaurants to limit smoking to well-ventilated areas would hardly be considered revolutionary in California. But they're making waves in normally unflappable Finland because some see the changes as the work of government busybodies trying to impose a dictatorship of clean living.
"I think the authorities are trying to stigmatize smoking, and it doesn't feel good," said Anne Frey, manager of the Cantina West restaurant here, which now has to commit a third of its 550 seats to nonsmoking areas, even though demand is less than 15%. "It makes me feel uncomfortable to smoke now, but that doesn't make me want to quit. It just makes me a little bit angry."
Health and trade union officials, however, contend that they have a responsibility to disabuse society of its bad habits.
"Secondhand smoke can cause cancer, and employers must protect their workers from this danger like any other hazard in the workplace," said Anna-Liisa Sundquist, an advisor with the Department for Occupational Safety and Health.
Dozens of nonsmoking Finns become ill each year with lung cancer or heart disease blamed on their exposure to the cigarette smoke of others, she said. The government has stepped in to toughen laws to protect the public's health from smoking's well-documented dangers and private businesses from the lawsuits that could be expected from sick employees if no regulatory action was taken, Sundquist said.
Smoking in offices and in buses, taxis and other transport was restricted in 1994, but only with the changes imposed in March is the practice banned in airports, ferry terminals and large public buildings. The new laws also prohibit smoking at restaurant and pub bar counters, to reduce the toxic fumes wafting over the bar help.
"It's a lot easier to be at work now that there isn't smoke pouring over me all night," said bartender Hinni-Riikka Heiskanen, a 23-year-old smoker who nonetheless said she appreciates the restrictions. "I would get up in the morning and feel like I had a hangover even if I didn't drink or smoke myself."
Unlike many of their fellow smokers in Europe, Finns have long exhibited more politeness in their puffing since some restrictions were imposed six years ago.
"No one would ever just light up in your home. People go outside to smoke, even in the winter," said Jorma Kallio, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, who smokes but still strongly supports the crackdown aimed at making smoking more difficult, if not outright unpleasant.
"Quitting is difficult for a lot of people, and they need more incentive to try," said the union boss, who represents 48,500 members. "I consider it a proper role for myself and other social leaders to push this. Labor unions have a responsibility to protect their members' health."
Kallio's union represents 80% of Finnish restaurant workers and 85% of its members are women, he noted. Because the new laws also prohibit assigning pregnant women to work in areas where smoking is allowed, the changes were accompanied by expanded state maternity leave benefits for workers whose employers cannot provide a smoke-free environment.
Sundquist noted that backing the restrictions with more public assistance helps secure public support for what is effectively a state campaign against smoking. But she and others note that change has to be executed with caution, or the government's noble goal will lose the liberty-minded mainstream.
"We have to do this step by step if we want to keep the public with us," said Tapani Melkas, director of health promotion and disease prevention at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. "Finns are very law-abiding people. If there is a law, they think it should be followed, and if there is an area designated as smoke-free, they will respect that. But we have to be patient and careful not to alienate people."
He pointed to the admirable drop in adult male smoking achieved since the 1960s, when 60% of Finnish men smoked. Today, the figure is 27%, and most of the reduction has occurred since the government began taking a more aggressive stance against smoking six years ago.
Smoking among women has risen during the same period, to about 25%, Melkas said. There is also little or no change in the number of teenage smokers despite costly public education programs to make youths aware of cancer and heart disease risks. Nearly 30% of 18-year-olds embrace the habit.
"We've seen encouraging decreases in lung cancer and coronary disease in line with the decline in adult male smoking," Melkas said, explaining that Finland had the highest risk of heart disease in Europe two decades ago but now has the lowest. "But people are very worried about young smokers. Like kids everywhere, ours see smoking as a sign of independence and rejection of old people's advice."
But he and others steering Finland away from the smoking lifestyle believe that the recent changes are creating enough inconvenience that smokers will at least light up less and may eventually be compelled to quit.
And for the long-silent majority of Finns who don't smoke, the restrictions are making their time spent in public places more enjoyable, even if nothing approaching the concept of nonsmokers' rights has yet emerged here.
"I'm all for it. I find that I am getting more sensitive to external substances as I get older," said Eva Vamer, a middle-aged diner enjoying the lakeside view and fresh air at the Toeoeloenranta restaurant here, where smokers now tend to take their cigarettes outside. "I would never ask someone not to smoke. As a Finn, I think people should be able to live freely, however they want. But it's nice that smokers have become more sensitive nowadays."