Got a Light? Krauts and Cancer Sticks

Germans are health crazed -- except when it comes to smoking. The country leads Western Europe in tobocco consumption. Nothing like a coffin nail after a meat-free, organic quiche.

Germans are a health conscious -- some might say health obsessed -- people. Their eggs need to be organic and come from free-range chickens. Some can tell you the type of grass that grows on the farm where their organic milk comes from. Millions of Germans cycle to work and then stop off for some yoga on their way home.

And in between all this health and exercise, Germans smoke pack after pack of cigarettes.

Even as much of Europe -- including parts of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Italy -- have enacted tough anti-smoking measures, Germans continue puffing away on their cancer sticks as though nicotine were nothing more than flammable tofu. Cafés are cloudy with a thin blue haze that descends lower and lower as the evening progresses. Diners light up before their last bite of organic greens crosses the halfway point of their esophagus. And a night in a German club will leave clothes and hair thick with sexy eau d' ashtray.

Offices, too, are not immune. To Americans, the idea of smoky conference rooms may seem quaintly 1970s, but business travellers are likely to be gasping for breath by the time a German meeting comes to an end. While many workplaces now have designated smoking areas, millions of desks across the country are still crowned with overflowing ashtrays.

Indeed, Germans remain some of the most enthusiastic smokers in all of Western Europe and even give a number of Eastern European countries a run for their money. Fully 33.9 percent of German adults light up on a regular basis. The rate for women has actually gone up slightly since 1998, according to statistics from the World Health Organization. The only two Western European countries ahead in the race for lung cancer are Andorra and Austria.

Even worse, Germany only recently began tackling the problem of smoking in schools. Now there are bans on smoking at schools, for both teachers and pupils, in nine of Germany's 16 federal states. The others? The only rule remains the ban on using tobacco products for children under the age of 16.

A number of Germans -- tendrils of smoke drifting gently out of nostrils -- will assure you that the right to smoke is an important one and the country's resistance to draconian anti-smoking measures is a sign of the society's openness. But what's a visitor to do when searching for a breath of air not hopelessly laden with carbon monoxide? Just step outside. After all, the country is so intensely concerned about the environment that German air quality outside the bar or restaurant or office or café or just about any other indoor space you care to visit is fantastic. Windmills dot the countryside and, even in cities, air quality continues to improve.

Which perhaps explain why Germans continue puffing away. With all that herbal tea and organic whole wheat bread, a bit of nicotine, they may be thinking, can't do much harm. Can it?


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