Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Holy Herb

The first person to ever smoke tobacco was a Spaniard named Rodrigo de Triana. Graced indeed with the extraordinary ability to unwittingly get himself written into history by simply being in the right place at the right time, it was remarkably this very same individual who from his listing lookout shouted the words, "Tierra en la vista!" to an anxious Captain Columbus below.

At one point however the legendary timing of Don Triana almost failed him when he was hauled up before the dreaded Inquisition for presumed dealings with the devil, where according to eyewitnesses, he would inhale smoke from a tube and then out through his nostrils. Of course in that era it was not at all uncommon for people to be burned at the stake for reasons far more absurd, but unsurprisingly in this particular case the Crown intervened and quickly quashed the charges. It seems that the Royal house, keen to root out all anti-Christ’s from their zealously Catholic Kingdom were conveniently pagan enough to tone down their bloody crusade in order to allow for such lucrative, revenue generating heresy such as “Tobacco Smoking".

And thus began the cosy romance between the Spanish Exchequer and the leafy plant which the public soon came to label “La Hierba Santa” (The Holy Herb). In fact very little changed since the Inquisition episode, with the Spanish state collecting until recently the revenue generated by the 200 million cigarettes smoked daily. However Spain is fast changing and not so long ago in a major break with tradition, the Madrid based government put into force a polemic national law that places restrictions on Tabaquismo. This legislation which is supposedly designed to curb the popular public habit certainly has its merits, but given the hefty sum that the State collects from Tobacco, as well as the lack of legal convictions in the first three months, I suspect that they will not want for the law to be overly influential in the immediate future.

How and ever, effective or not, it is certainly a relief to see that the powers that be have finally recognised their moral obligation to deal with the startling 55,000 annual deaths due to tobacco addiction. What is more, this morbid figure has shown no sign of decline as 8% of girls and 31% of boys under the age of 14, and 45 % of females and 31% of males under the age of 18 are regular smokers. Hence it is in light of such statistics that one of the main objectives of the new measure is to reduce the possibility that the underage take up the habit. Thus in a fresh offensive, the pre-existing ban on both the sale to minors and the sale by minors of Cigarillos has been broadened to also prevent the access by minors to tobacco vending machines. Furthermore there is now a blanket ban on all forms of advertisement which of course envelops TV, radio and magazines. The only exception to the above rule is the allowing of publicity at the point of sale.

Smoking has always been relatively inexpensive in Spain, but by far the lowest city price is to found in the Government protected kiosks known as Estancos. An historic Madrid institution, these small businesses were granted exclusively in the post civil war years to the widows of army officers (presumably on the winning side) as a source of livelihood in an era before social security or pensions. Up until now the said shops have enjoyed excellent custom due to a combination of their family run nature and unrivalled tobacco prices as well as becoming the traditional point of sale in peoples minds for the purchase of cigars, pipes, stamps, bus passes and more recently, cell phone credit. The brown and yellow painted Estancos, which appear in either “booth” or “small shop” form, price a pack of twenty cigarettes at about €2.35, while from a vending machine one will normally pay €2.55. There are many who complain the future of these outlets is at risk due to the anticipated fall in Tobacco consumption. However I do not agree as the new law has easily compensated them by accidentally eliminating nearly all of the competition they once faced.

The most popular brands smoked are Camel and Fortuna while also widely inhaled are Marlborough and Lucky Strike. Over the years these preferences have changed considerably, contributed to in no small part by the disappearance of Tobocolera, the original state tobacco company. Using plants cultivated in the Canary Islands, Tobacolera produced brands such as Habanas, Mencey, Rex, Record, not forgetting the surviving Ducados. However this domestic giant was eventually privatised and merged with its French counterpart of the same name to form the Altadis group that now produces the forementioned Fortuna and Ducados as well as the less well known Gitanes. Nowadays just as in other countries, all tobacco packaging must be labelled with one of a definite list of health warnings concerning the various side effects of tobacco. Only yesterday to my amusement I heard a man refuse the first pack of Ducados handed to him, saying, “Impotence no, I ´d rather a pack with cancer please!!”

In Modern Spain smoking has always been outlawed in museums, churches, the metro and theatre. Under the new legislation Tabaquismo is now prohibited in: health centres, state buildings, indoor sports arenas, closed offices, telephone boxes, ATM booths, elevators and suburban transport. In bars and restaurants of under 30 sq. meters the owner of the premises may decide if the establishment shall be for smokers or not. Furthermore, all locations of a floor space greater than 100 sq. meters may allocate no more than 30% of the total area to smokers. The fines handed down for smoking in a prohibited area may be as high as €10,000, while that for advertising in the media can amount to €60.000. Meanwhile a penalty of anything between €30 and €6000 will apply for failure to post health warnings or publicise at the entrance whether smoking is tolerated or not.

However the advantage enjoyed by the Spaniards, and deprived of the Irish is that for almost 7 months each year, people here will be almost oblivious to the new law due to the warm climate and terraced cafes that entice all outdoors. This in itself will make the less stringent Spanish ban far easier to implement and perhaps it is this consoling thought is the reason that there has not been more noise than would have been generally anticipated from the dissenting factions. That said, the Madrid winter is just as cold and long but unfortunately the publicans have not yet invested in the outdoor heaters as provided in Dublin. But then again unlike Ireland, few Spanish bar owners would have bulging pockets or have the same excessive cash to spare. Nevertheless, just as in Eire the end result now witnessed is groups of shivering people huddled outside their office door while they puff away in cold exile. Curiously we now have the very opposite situation to the early Franco years when it was frowned upon by society for a woman to be seen smoking on the street.

Finally when all is said and done, smoker or non smoker, I guess that everyone including myself is relieved each month to not have to watch bank tellers dangling a cigarette over our ashen wages.

No comments: