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Why Do Europeans Smoke So Much? Section B

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, July 16, 2007

Part 5 of series: European Reflections 2006
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In my last post I began to theorize on why Europeans, in general, smoke more than Americans. My first idea was:

Reason #1: Europeans Smoke More Because They’re Less Aware of the Health Risks Associated with Smoking

Today I’ll suggest two further reasons.

Reason #2: Smoking Seems to be Imbedded in European Socializing More Than It is in the U.S.

Admittedly I’m no expert here, but from my casual observations, it seems that smoking in Europe goes hand-in-hand with conversation, especially in the evening. Throughout Europe people by the millions sit in little cafés, tavernas, and pubs, enjoying a drink, a smoke, and animated conversation with friends. Americans, in general, do not tend to enjoy after-work conversation over a cigarette. Rather, we work longer hours, or sit in our cars and trains commuting long distances from work to home, or, when we finally get home, we cozy up to our televisions for some private moments of news and entertainment. (Photo to the right: Two young people in Nice, enjoying a cafe and a cigarette)

If I’m correct, and socializing in the evening is much more common in Europe than in the U.S., and if smoking is an adjunct to that tradition, then it would make sense that more Europeans smoke, and that this practice is embedded within their culture.

Reason #3: A Substantial Segment of American Society Regards Smoking as Immoral on Religious Grounds, Whereas Relatively Few Europeans Share This Conviction

Millions of Americans, almost always of the conservative Christian variety, were raised to believe that smoking is not just unhealthy, but downright sinful. (Many committed Muslims also believe smoking is wrong.) Even though my church and family did not teach the view that smoking was necessarily sinful, I nevertheless intuited that smoking was wrong. Now I have no idea what percentage of the American population continues to hold this belief, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 10% or more. If so, then this helps to explain the difference between European and American smoking practices. A substantial number of Americans believe it is wrong at best, and downright sinful at worst.

Moreover, the relatively recent increase of anti-smoking activism in America has forged an unusual coalition between secular liberals and conservative Christians. Though they might disagree on almost everything else, they passionately concur on the evils of smoking. Thus the legal and cultural pressure against smoking in the U.S. is stronger than that in Europe.

Europe, of course, has much fewer conservative Christians than the U.S. But I was once surprised to discover that many evangelical Christians in Europe do not share the American disdain from smoking (and drinking). This is not to say that most European evangelicals smoke, of course. They don’t. But they do seem to be less “agin it” than their American counterparts. It will be interesting to see if the growing Muslim presence in Europe leads to less smoking.


I’m not a social scientist, or even a particular experienced European traveler. I’ve been there three times, for a total of six weeks. So I have no idea whether my analysis in this blog post will hold water or not. Yet I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my reasons #2 and #3 do help to explain the differences between European and American smoking patterns, in additon to reason #1, which is based on sociological research. Both of my reasons have to do with culture, and culture is a powerful influence on human behavior.

Topics: European Reflections |

7 Responses to “Why Do Europeans Smoke So Much? Section B”

  1. Thomas Buck Says:
    July 16th, 2007 at 3:21 am

    It would be interesting to see if lung cancer and heart disease were more prevalent among Europeans, also.

  2. Brad Says:
    July 16th, 2007 at 10:58 am

    I learned to socialize long before I was being pressured by my peers to smoke. Teens smoke because their chosen cirle of friends smoke. I suspect reasons for starting to smoke may be different than for continuing to smoke.

    I know many former smokers that re-started in bars, usually away from home. Something about drinking and smoking.

    A Greek friend once remarked that Americans have nicer homes because they are in them so much whereas Greeks lived in the public square (or, outside of the house).

  3. Bill Goff Says:
    July 16th, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    I am writing from St. Petersburg, Russia, where I have been on vacation for three weeks. People here smoke very much too, young and old. I’ve noticed that most of the cigarette brands are American. So let me suggest another reason for the high percentage of European smokers: massive advertising campaigns by the American tobbaco industry.
    But I also observed that a very popular new book available at all bookstores and book stalls is a book on how to stop smoking.

  4. p_kleinod Says:
    July 20th, 2007 at 7:06 am

    I’m a European and I don’t smoke. Never have. None of my friends
    smoke. Of all the people in the choir in which I sing, at most 3 out
    of 60 smoke. In my place of work (government laboratory), almost
    nobody in our research group smokes. When my wife and I go out to eat
    in the restaurants in our area, there are smokers at almost every
    table. I have no explanation for this.

    Hardly anyone here thinks that smoking in itself is morally wrong or
    sinful. Almost everyone would think it is criminal for a pregnant
    mother to smoke or drink alcohol because it is widely known that this
    puts the unborn child at risk. Smoking is stupid—even most of the
    smokers agree with this. However, people are aware that passive
    smoking is harmful, and that is why most are in agreement with
    banning smoking in public buildings and in restaurants, although the
    final laws are not in place yet (in Germany).

    Once, at a party, I found myself sitting next to a young minister of
    religion. I asked her why it is that people smoked in restaurants in
    the first place. Isn’t it common courtesy not to befoul the
    air that others are forced to breathe? She answered that she had
    never thought of it that way before. Amazing. Even if smoking were not
    harmful to the health, it might be that others find the smell
    extremely unpleasant. My friend likes the smell of burning jute, so he
    often lights up a piece of string! But he would never do this in a
    restaurant. Why not? Doesn’t one have a bad conscience about
    urinating while in the public swimming pool? Why?

    I myself have nothing against smoking, as long as the person doing it
    doesn’t exhale. Unfortunately, smokers seem to regard the atmosphere as their
    personal garbage can. Never have I heard a sermon from the pulpit
    mentioning this point of view. Why not?

  5. Dan Says:
    May 10th, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    I am an American that has worked in Europe and have been on vacation. The statistics tell us that only 26 percent of British smoke and 32 percent of Frenchan Italians smoke. Ameicans percentages vary from 17 to 19 percent. I find this hard to believe. In America, yes most people do not smoke but in Europe, it has to be 50 percent or more. It seems like amost everyone smokes. Maybe they seem to tell us that only 1/4 to 1/3 of Europeans are real smokers but maybe another 1/4 or 1/3 do not consider themselves smokers nd only smoke a few cigarettes a day. In the US, they ask us in surveys if we had a cigarette in the week month. So I think out of the 17 to 20 percent of Americans that smoked in the last month, half of them are real smokers. Most of them are 16 to 35(maybe 25 percent and most of them live in the lower economic areas white or minority). In well off areas, people are embarassed to say they are smokers. I am sure people over 35 smoke much much less that younger people here in the US. Maybe about 5 to 10 percent. Many of the people that do smoke live in tobacco country in the south. I think in Europe, they ask if you are a smoker I believe. People that smoke seldom or only when they go out, probably do not say they are smokers when they sould say they are! Why American cigarette companies sell well in Europe? They are usually cheaper I think. European cigarette companies are much more expensive. In America like in new York, a pack of cigarettes 10 years ago was about $1.25 I think and in North Carolina(cigarette country, it was about 40 cents.) Now in New York ,they have taxed it so much to about 6 to 7 dollars a pack and New Jersey, it is about 5 to 6 dollars a pack. think wth all the amount they spend on cigarettes a year with 1 pack a day in NY. They spend about $2,550 dollars. They could have used it on their mortgage payments, credit card bills, and maybe on a great vacation! Europeans should think about this too.

  6. James Thompson Says:
    December 31st, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    I am a non-smoking American living in Koh Samui, Thailand. I cannot believe how many Europeans on this island smoke. They smoke on elevators, while playing volleyball, while riding a motorbike, with children, etc. etc. It seems they have no regard for others in their presence. I regard Europeans as advanced, sophisticated and educated people, so why haven’t they been educated about the obvious health issues involved in smoking? For years, the US gov’t has banned smoking in public places and the restrictions have worked for all. Why are the Europeans so slow in this area?

  7. Jen Says:
    November 5th, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    I think price plays a huge factor. In Canada a pack of the cheapest cigarettes is $10 for 20 and prices are constantly rising. In Europe I assume they are cheaper. I’ve never lived or even really visited much of Western Europe so I’m not certain of the prices there but in Central and Eastern Europe they pretty much cost a couple of dollars a pack.


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