Italy (Gasp!) Starts to Clear the Clouds of Smokers
ROME, Nov. 11 â€” In a country where little can be taken for granted, certain truisms persist. Mopeds will come within millimeters of mowing pedestrians down. Mozzarella will be on the menu.
And Italians will light up almost anywhere they please, accessorizing their smoldering glances with smoldering cigarettes.
But from behind the dense clouds of smoke here, a new environment is beginning to emerge. In gasping fits and starts, Italians are thinking what was once unthinkable: that it may be time to clamp down on tobacco users.
Italy's health minister, Girolamo Sirchia, has pledged to purify indoor air. The Italian Senate last week approved an antismoking measure that would forbid cigar and cigarette smoking in public places and require restaurants to confine smoking to special sections and to install ventilation systems.
On Sunday, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi joined the fledgling campaign by publicly lending his support to the measure.
"I hope it will end its journey through Parliament as soon as possible," Mr. Ciampi said, adding, "Smoking is, always and without exception, bad."
That is not a universally shared feeling in Italy. But it seems to be growing in popularity here and throughout Europe, where many countries have higher smoking rates than the United States and a much greater tolerance for smokers.
Government officials in Ireland have proposed outlawing smoking, not only in restaurants but also in pubs during periods when food is being served. Cigarette vending machines were banned last year.
Officials in Greece enacted a law last month that prohibits smoking in public places and mandates that restaurants and cafes create nonsmoking sections by Dec. 1.
The Italian legislation, which must now be taken up by the lower house of Parliament, would do much the same.
Whether it will succeed remains uncertain. Some smokers here feel little of the inhibition of their American counterparts, who were long ago exiled to the sidewalks in front of their office buildings.
They indulge their habit in public buses, although it is already forbidden there. They smoke beside signs telling them not to. They smoke while having their hair styled.
They make few apologies for it, although many of them say they do exercise restraint.
"If I'm in the car alone, I smoke," said Giuliano Bianucci, the president of the Association of Polite Smokers and Tolerant Nonsmokers, an advocacy group based in Milan. "If there's somebody else who doesn't smoke, I'll try to smoke less. I'll crack the window open.
"If I go to a nonsmoker's house who doesn't let me have a cigarette after dinner," Mr. Bianucci said, "I think that it's time to change friends."
Gianfranco Fini, the deputy prime minister, recently told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the evils of smoking were "beyond doubt." But he added, "How much of human behavior isn't virtuous?"
Italians may in fact smoke less than the residents of many other European countries. According to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization, only 25 percent of Italian adults smoke regularly.
Those same statistics, from the years 1999 to 2001, show that 27 percent of French adults, 34.5 percent of German adults and 37.6 percent of Greek adults are regular smokers.
In the United States, 23.3 percent of adults smoked regularly in 2000, the most recent year for which the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could give a firm estimate.
Perhaps the more pronounced difference between some European countries and the United States is the freedom with which smokers light up. But that freedom could be coming to an end.
A slowly growing number of Roman restaurants either forbid or discourage smoking.
"It's a question of courtesy," said Gloria Gravina, who works at Uno e Bino, a trendy bistro here. It banished smoking last spring, and, Ms. Gravina said, "it has worked out better for us."
Mr. Sirchia said in an interview today that he had received a flood of letters and phone calls in support of the new antismoking legislation, convincing him that "Italy is changing its attitudes."
But many smokers and restaurant and bar owners here in Rome said Italians would not easily surrender the right to smoke in certain places.
"It's a tradition," said Tiberio Caltagironi, the owner of Bar Pasquino. "Coffee and cigarettes â€” it's its own special match. If cigarettes don't exist, it's like a part of coffee not existing."
Half a block away, a woman walking out of a tobacco shop said, "If you can't smoke in restaurants, I won't eat anymore."