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Italians Find Quarantine Relief in a Cloud of Cigarette Smoke

Sheltering in place from a deadly respiratory virus, Italy can’t say arrivederci to its long love affair with tobacco

Take a gander down Rome’s largely deserted streets and causeways and you’ll see the now typical array of shuttered restaurants, wineries, pizzerias, gyms, hotels, book stores and nightclubs. Left standing are the supermarkets (obviously essential), the pharmacies (little debate there) and… the tobacconists.

When the lockdown began, the Italian government included tobacconists (“tabacchis”) among the few “essential” businesses that would remain open. At the start, too, panic buyers swept all the quality rolling papers — vaguely organic; thin, but not too thin — off their stands. These days, lines for cigarettes are frequently longer than those for groceries. Meanwhile, cigarette vending machines covered in wire mesh dispense cigarettes to anybody with a “health card.” 

And so, beneath the spreading boughs of Rome’s stone pines, even frail old ladies peel back their masks and huff down great clouds of tobacco. 

But smoking kills especially quick nowadays. No longer is there merely a risk of lung cancer 30 or 40 years in the future. Coupled with a dose of COVID-19, the habit can now kill you imminently. Epidemiologists have uncovered data suggesting the outbreaks in China and Italy may have been worsened by the high rates of smoking — 31 percent of men and 16.9 percent of women smoke in Italy; 27.7 and 2.7 percent smoke in China — and governments worldwide have urged smokers to quit NOW.

The additional complications smoking can cause are manifest: It erodes the cilia, the little hairs that are essential in keeping oxygen flowing from the lungs to the bloodstream, and the same cilia that the novel coronavirus can damage. Yet, the number of Italians smoking since the outbreak has apparently increased: Tobacconists tell me purchases have gone up since lockdown was imposed; along those lines, in that same period, Google searches for “tabacchi” have increased by 426 percent.

So are cigarettes really “essential” to live? 

Although the Italian government never explained its decision, its motives were clear: As well as being functionaries of the state that supply bus tickets, process utility bills and allow customers to up the balance on their mobile plans, tabacchis offer a product that, if banned, would leave addicts in an even deeper state of despair. As one Italian writer put it, “What would happen if all those people locked in their homes (they can’t leave, can’t work, can’t run) remained also without cigarettes?”

“If anything, people are smoking more,” agrees a tobacconist in Rome. For people staying at home, he noted, what else is there to do? 

Smoking also has a deep, largely inescapable cultural pull in Italy. Early on in Italy’s history — and that of other smoking nations — cigarettes, expensive as they were, spoke to a certain pedigree of taste, writes Indiana University professor Carl Ipsen in his book, Fumo: Italy’s Love Affair With the Cigarette. The upper classes smoked them; the lower classes longed for them. Smoking on the big screen glorified the anxieties of the wealthy upper-crust: the chain-smoking Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita; the decadent literati on the Roman rooftop in La Grande Bellezza; and of course the dashing fella below (h/t: Ipsen), the chain-smoking writer Ugo Ojetti

Ipsen also writes of working-class children who, groping for affluence, spent their days scrounging for cigarette butts, and of Neapolitan women offering up their children in exchange for a pack of straights. “The average Italian cannot cope with deprivation,” rang a 1978 editorial in Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera. “Deny him his coffee and cigarettes (‘that little I have left’) and you will have a dead man.”

Elsewhere in the world, however, the inverse happened: Smoking became a sign of poverty. Per Ipsen, quitting — which gave the impression that a person’s life was fulfilling enough that they could afford to not smoke themselves to an early grave — became vogue, particularly in the U.S. But Europe, strewn with imperial wreckage and less convinced of its own immortality, clung on for longer. “In Italy today,” he says, “smoking continues to cross class boundaries.” 

In fairness to the Italians, given our currently highly stressful times, smoking is enjoying an uptick across the globe, even in the U.S. Investment Bank Piper Sandler reported a 1.1 percent increase internationally, manufacturers are reportedly building “contingency” stocks to keep up with demand and shares in Big Tobacco have risen by as much as 15 percent. In London, of course the cigarette-selling off-licenses are still open, says a friend. “Our very existence depends on it,” he tells me. 

Smoking is an effective coping mechanism, says Sara Gorman, a public health expert. Stress fires up the nicotine receptors in a smoker’s brain, making the habit a soothing palliative. At such a moment of profound psychological strain, then, a cigarette may be the only way to ease a smoker’s nerves — even when a good deal of that anxiety derives from the threat posed by smoking itself. 

Thus, the brain umms and ahhs, contorting reason to justify itself. “Anything your brain can do to look at risk a little differently, the brain will do to support that behavior,” says Gorman. “You might try to say, ‘I don’t smoke that much.’” And the more clearly a person perceives the threat posed by smoking, the more fiercely they’ll resist the impulse to quit. To that end, Gorman recalls how smoking ads attempting to scare smokers into giving up have historically backfired. “What ends up happening,” she says, “is smokers get anxious when they see this and they want to smoke.”

Daniele, a smoker in Rome who sort of wafts perpetually through a haze of tobacco mist, effortlessly proves Gorman’s point. Does he know that smoking, right now, poses a considerably greater risk than it did pre-pandemic? 

“Sure, but barely, at our age,” he tells me. “Am I honestly supposed to do something (i.e., give up smoking) that will make me even more agitated? It helps to burn time — literally. And all the usual ‘anxieties’ of life — work, studies, etc. — haven’t stopped, just intensified. So why stop now? Yeah, I get the health risks, but I’m still young.”

One can only cringe with horror as Daniele rambles himself into paroxysms of illogic. It’s a feat of delusion.

Cigarettes are also a perverse symbol of health. In World War I, unions were set up to deliver more cigarettes to soldiers, and masks fitted with cigarette-holders were designed to accommodate Spanish flu-stricken smokers. (Never made it past the blueprint, shockingly.)

Smoking, back in the day, was imbued with all sorts of nonsensical health benefits as well — doctors used to prescribe them to patients, and the ad department for Lucky Strike once graciously dispatched cigarettes to general practitioners, free of charge. In the time of the modern plague, cigarettes now have one tangible, psychological benefit: They helpfully mask the symptoms of COVID-19. 

Consider this novel meme that’s doing the rounds. Featuring an image of a smoker inlaid with a caption, it goes something like this: “I was worried, because I was suffering from a dry, hacking cough, felt consistently ill and exhausted and found it difficult to breathe. But then I realized it was just the severe bronchitis I’ve developed from years of chain-smoking. PHEW!” 

To draw a pretentious literary parallel, it may be worth looking to the wisdom of Italian writer Italo Svevo, an incorrigible smoker writing in the 20th century. One of the foremost proponents of cigarettes as a twisted symbol of wellness and health, Svevo penned his 1923 masterpiece, Zeno’s Conscience, about the lifelong failure of his protagonist, the well-to-do Zeno Cosini, to quit. 

Or better put, Cosini isn’t attempting to quit insomuch as he is addicted to quitting. It induces in him a feeling of profound optimism. Each “last cigarette,” he writes, is imbued with “the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of an imminent future of strength and health.” 

“The taste of a cigarette,” he muses, “is more intense when it’s your last.”

Paradoxically, that “imminent future” of clean-lunged joy is only possible if he continues to smoke. Because, invariably, whenever he does manage to quit for an extended period, neither the strength nor health he envisioned actually appear. In fact, new miseries merely emerge to fill the void.

Cosini is sure there is just one foolproof way to quit: Thermonuclear annihilation. He writes that only in the event of an “unheard-of catastrophe” bringing humankind to its knees — an “enormous explosion that no one will hear,” after which the earth, “once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness” — will there be a permanent solution to the miseries he has attributed to his smoking habit. Through the great plume of a mushroom cloud, Mother Earth will take one last drag. 

If oblivion is our only option, then thank God the tabacchis are still open.