Ιn a country with one of the world’s highest rates of smoking, a near eight-year-long economic crisis and repeated anti-smoking education campaigns has led to a 9.6 percent drop in Greece despite the omnipresence of people still puffing away almost everywhere.
“I am 100% sure we have solved the problem,” said Panagiotis Behrakis, who heads the Joint Action force on tobacco control in Europe told the British newspaper The Guardian. “It is now just a matter of time.”
This month, Behrakis announced, the number of smokers had fallen from 36.7 percent in 2012 to 27.1 percent by the end of 2017.
“That’s a fall of almost 2 percentage points every year. It’s very high – a record number, in fact,” he said, adding that for the young and the oldest – but not those in the middle yet – there was a dramatic decline.
Tobacco consumption, as a result, had been cut by almost half over the past decade from an estimated 35.1 billion cigarettes in 2007 to 17.9 billion in 2016 although Greeks still rank the highest in the European Union.
“Only 13% of Greeks over the age of 65 smoke, and now we are seeing the fruits of years of campaigning in schools, with a big fall in Greeks under the age of 24 becoming smokers. The battle is with those who are middle-aged,” he said.
The cost of tobacco has soared as part of austerity measures that brought new taxes in return for bailouts but he said money wasn’t as much the reason as the ongoing educational campaigns although the country’s Deputy Health Minister, a surgeon, was seen smoking at a news conference for anti-smoking programs and as a half dozen anti-smoking laws over the past decade have been ignored with impunity.
Despite the drop, it’s difficult to go into a restaurant or tavern without a cloud of smoke and even doctors and police smoke at their stations in violation of the law, as do Members of Parliament who passed the no-smoking laws.
While clinics to help people quit smoking have multiplied, a campaign backed by Greek-American businessman George Behrakis from the Boston area – Panagiotis Behrakis’ cousin – the cost is also a factor for many stubbing out their butts.
“People are giving up not so much for health reasons as financial reasons,” Aliki Mouriki, a prominent sociologist told the paper. “And there are still a lot of hardcore fundamentalist smokers out there.”
But Panagiotis Behrakis said that’s not so, pointing out that the biggest drop was among higher-income earners, he said.
“If smoking in this country is like a vessel with two holes, what we are seeing is the feeding taps being slowly closed,” he said. “ It is a moral victory.”