VENICE, Italy—From as early as I can remember, my parents and teachers virulently decried smoking. Smoking kills—it’s that simple. The fast track to lung cancer? A pack a day.
I’m not sure whether Italians don’t believe this truth or just ignore the warnings on cigarette packages. Regardless, Italian children, just like American ones, form opinions towards smoking at an early age.
I was sitting with my roommate in the back of a vaporetto during my last weekend in Venice when a group of parents and children joined us. The scene couldn’t have been more innocently idyllic: the children sucked away on their lollipops while the adults filled the air with congenial conversation.
After a few final licks, one of the girls finished her lollipop. Satisfied, the child, who couldn’t have been more than six years old, took the stick out of her mouth and held it in front of her father, waiting for something. After the girl muttered something to him, the dad pretended to light the end of her lollipop as if it were a cigarette. She then pretended to smoke, suavely holding the stick between her pointer and middle fingers while elegantly puffing out air. She continued the game for a minute or so before growing bored.
My roommate and I exchanged surprised looks. What took me aback wasn’t that the little girl feigned smoking in order to imitate those around her, or to play at being a grown-up. I’ve seen that happen in America. Indeed, there is a certain coolness associated with smoking in both countries. And a child pretending to smoke at age six doesn’t mean that she will definitely be a smoker in ten years.
No, what shocked me about the whole thing—and what I’d never seen before—was that the dad indulged her, implicitly encouraging her in this little game.
Through his actions, the father sent a clear message: as far as he was concerned, the prospect of his daughter smoking raised no problems. He was, from the standpoint of an onlooker, in a sense priming a child for when she’d actually be able to smoke.
The Italian father and daughter attached no stigma to smoking; they saw no problem with it at all. Simply, the girl was too young to actually smoke. Now, she could only pretend. But when she is old enough, she can join the rest of society, lighting up once or twice or ten times a day.
In America, a parallel attitude exists toward another deeply ingrained social phenomenon: drinking. Drinking is frowned upon until a certain age—the legally enforced 21—but once a person passes that landmark, the activity becomes totally admissible and even welcomed. In many settings, there is a stigma associated with not drinking.
And sometimes, American parents prime their children to drink when they’re older, too. It’s no surprise that in celebrations, parents often whip out Martinelli’s, a sparkling, gold-colored cider that quite closely resembles champagne.
Of course, the health issues of smoking are far greater than those of drinking, at least when done in moderation. Yet still, it’s not quite fair to cast a blanket criticism over the Italian way of life. We’re all products of our environment, absorbing the thoughts and attitudes of our society.
So don’t worry Phillip Morris. Your business is safe in Italy.
And American breweries don’t need to hold their breath, either.
Robert S. Samuels ’14 is a sports writer in Leverett House.