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The Smoke Crisis

Culture is intertwined in all of our everyday activities. It dictates what we value, what we do, and how we do it. Greek culture has been shaped for millennia by its great history and accomplishments. Our ancestors inspired deep introspection and questioning of our world in an effort to understand and thrive. Greeks rose from the ashes many times throughout history, and each time showed the world that our spirit is eternal and strong enough to always persevere.

Greece has its own internal challenges though, which for one reason or another have proven to be harder to deal with. A cigarette is always in the picture when depicting Greek culture. The small but deadly objects are everywhere you turn. People are smoking on the beach, at the dinner table, and often in closed confined spaces. It is difficult to go anywhere in the country without encountering someone smoking or seeing cigarette litter on beaches and along roads.

(Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

The habit of smoking has had a strong hold on Greek society since the 17th century. Greece along with its neighbors, had gone on to establish their own plantations and trade routes for tobacco and tobacco products. The Ottomans were of the main producers of these products. Pipes and the tobacco in them were used to represent social status and style. This was a turning point in which tobacco became more than a habit, and evolved into being a part of people’s identities

After Greece won its independence in 1821 and regained its ancestral lands, the plantations that grew tobacco were now on Greek territory and the production and export of tobacco remained a booming business in Greece. The tobacco business became a major pillar of the Greek economy and employed many people. After World War Two, the Greek tobacco industry struggled to compete with other producers, but while the industry had diminished, the effect it had on society and culture remained and grew deeper.

For decades the product had been a part of daily life, and today the addiction affects about 40% of the population. Greeks are among the top smokers in the world and are recognized as the heaviest smokers in the EU. It is rare to find an establishment that is completely smoke-free. In 2009 the Greek government passed in to law banning smoking indoors and an attached fine that could reach up to 10,000 euro. Over ten years later, these laws have become essentially a joke with no regard from business owners or even police officers. Restaurants, bars, cafes, and other gathering places are absent of anyone enforcing such rules. Business owners object to the rules because they are in dire need of customers and revenue. And as it seems, they have successfully evaded the law, their establishments thick with gray smoke.

(Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

I have personal observed that the people entrusted to enforce these laws have also contributed to the smog. Police officers in the southern suburbs of the famed and pricey Athens Riviera have been seen driving in their patrol cars smoking, and then littering with their cigarettes. Officers in Athens Centre smoked on the corner or watch pedestrians litter with their cigarettes without fear of a ticket. This conduct exposes the culture that allows it. The police are role-models. When people witness role-models littering and causing harm, it makes it seem acceptable. But while there is a need for more follow-through from government and law makers, citizens hold the power in making healthy habits stick in a society.

The smoke crisis in Greece is so severe that studies have been conducted on the subject by Harvard University and other prestigious schools. The U.S. media have covered the topic of why this addiction is not letting go of Greece. This crisis is gaining world recognition, and for good reason. It is not uncommon to witness people in Greece smoking around kids, the smoke encircling their still developing brains. By the time someone smells the smoke, the chemicals have worked their way in their bloodstream and are on the way to their vital organs. Children often have no idea how dangerous this is to their health and have no way to protect themselves. Some suggest that smoking around kids should be considered a violation of their Human Rights. In Greece the habit is not questioned or challenged, but studies regarding second-hand smoke prove that this has devastating effects on youth. And while this smoke is suffocating the next generation, it poses a danger to all who encounter it. The European Commission collected data in 2017 that showed 78% of Greek establishments were full of smoke, compared to the EU average of less than 10%.

Why is this being ignored? Scandals of past Ministers of Health smoking inside the Ministry of Health building during press conferences and similar spectacles have not helped to raise respect for the laws. It is a reoccurring theme in the news that those in positions of power violated the laws they pass.

It is dangerously easy to buy cigarettes and kids as young as fifteen often get their daily pack from the local kiosk. How can these situations be slipping through the cracks? Policemen rarely far from the kiosks.

(Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

Every single cigarette contains around 7000 toxic chemicals including arsenic, ammonia, and formaldehyde, to name a few. Even if you are not smoking the cigarette, simply being around the second-hand smoke is highly toxic and dangerous to your health, and the moment a cigarette becomes litter on the ground, these chemicals begin to work their way in to our water and food systems.

There are some groups taking action, however. This past summer the National Hellenic Student Association (of North America) hosted their annual beach clean-up in southern Athens and collected thousands of cigarette butts.

It is considered normal to dispose one’s cigarette wherever it suits them, on the beach, throwing it in to the sea from ferry boats, or from car windows. None of these actions in any of these locations are monitored or addressed – and rarely is the waste cleaned up.

Smoking has changed from an industry for profit to a deeply costly habit that is harming health and habitat. Now other Greek agricultural exports are thriving, like olives and olive oil – and Greece even produces the most cotton in Europe, there is no need for tobacco’s strong presence. Nevertheless, still it lurks behind every corner waiting to cloak you in its dangerous and unpleasant smoke. This is a topic seldom discussed in Greek media or society. It is even seen as a little taboo to question smokers and their habits because they are everywhere. But what good is silence? Can we remain silent while the next generation continues to be plagued by toxic second-hand smoke and trash in their communities?

This is a call to action for the Greek government and citizens alike. We owe this to our rich ancient and modern history and to our ancestors who shaped the world. We owe this to future Greek generations who deserve to be proud of their country, one where its citizens and environment are protected and is prosperous in all aspects. Failure to act will have negative effects on public health, the environment, the functioning of society, as well as to technological and investments and developments the country is working on.

The main challenges moving forward are to enforce laws, to ensure police and politicians do not act as if they are above the law, and to teach the next generation how to protect their health and environment. This is not a change that can be introduced gradually – it is urgent.

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