Having fresh air to breathe was never something I fully appreciated until I was trapped in the corner of a plastic box full of cigarette smoke.
One of the most distinctive differences between Italy and the United States is the abundance of smoking here. Italy has recently implemented some new smoking laws, but I haven’t seen any immediate behavioral changes.
According to ISTAT, the number of smokers in Italy for 2013 was 21.1 for every 100 people, aged 14 and older. That’s about 12,624,130 smokers in a population of 59.83 million.
My eyes felt dry and heavy. My hair and clothes were absorbing the smoke. I was choking on the polluted air and I actually thought that asphyxiation was a possibility. There I was, sitting in the corner of the plastic covered outdoor seating of Blanc Caffé in the town of La Spezia.
The raindrops couldn’t be heard over the blasting pop music, but I could see the rain pouring down onto the ground just outside the clear plastic. My companions and I still had 2.5 more hours until our train departure. There was nowhere for us to go.
I have never had a huge problem with breathing in small amounts of cigarette smoke. Most of the time when I’m just passing by a smoker, it doesn’t bother me. But being stuck in a small enclosed space with at least half of the customers lighting up their cigarettes and essentially creating a hot box made me realize that I was not okay with this.
Most of the customers looked young; it seemed like this café was a popular after school hang out spot. In Italy, there is no minimum smoking age, but it is illegal for tobacco to be sold to anyone under 18. Prior to 2013, the age limit was 16.
Albert Hessler, a man I met on the night of the Superbowl at Scholar’s Lounge has lived his life in both Italy and the States. He started smoking at age 16 and continued to smoke for 10 years. He had quit smoking for 4 months but started up again recently “for social reasons mainly.” Albert is 26 now.
“I think you should be 21 to smoke,” Albert said.
I asked him why he thought that.
“Because it’s a very dangerous choice and 18 isn’t old enough,” said Albert.
New smoking laws for Italy came into effect three weeks ago on Feb 2, 2016. These new laws come with some sizable fines. If you get caught grounding a cigarette, that’ll be €300. It’ll cost you €650 if you get caught smoking in a car with children or pregnant women and another €500 for smoking around a hospital. So unless you’re made of cash, don’t do it.
Will these new laws really change anything? I don’t know. I’ve seen at least a dozen people within the past few days toss their cigarette butts onto the ground and one of them could not have been older than 15.
Albert’s girlfriend, Ilaria Nucci, is a 26-year-old Italian native who first moved to Rome to attend university. Ilaria estimated that the average age to start smoking cigarettes is 16.
I asked her about why she thought kids started to smoke at such an early age. “To be cool. Peer pressure,” Ilaria said.
30 minutes after leaving the café, I was still able to pat down my jacket sleeves and visibly watch the cigarette smoke float up into the air. I’m looking forward breathing in some crisp, clean air.