How do different cultures view smoking?

On a recent business trip to Croatia, I was invited to meet a contact in a local café. The first thing that hit me as I walked in was a fug of cigarette smoke. My instant reaction was shock; coming from the UK and traveling mainly in western Europe, I’d thought most places banned smoking nowadays. “Not at all,” said my contact, whipping out a packet of cigarettes and offering me one. “Business in Croatia starts for most of us with a coffee and a cigarette in the local café. If food is not served in the venue, you are allowed to smoke. In Bosnia, it’s worse. Even I was surprised there, when people were smoking in restaurants, offices and hotels.”

A look at the World Health Organisation’s figures on smoking habits (2015) reveals that my colleague was right; in Bosnia, 47.2% of adult males smoke. In Croatia, it’s 39.4%, compared to just 19.9% in the UK and 19.5% in the USA.

In countries like Britain and the USA, where there is a strong anti-smoking lobby, non-smokers resent the lengthy cigarette breaks taken by smoking colleagues. Smoking is socially isolating, unless you happen to have a lot of smoking colleagues, in which case, the smokers in a group will form an instant bond. As a non-smoker you will not win friends in business if you sit in front of your client fanning the air and coughing pointedly. Here are some examples of smoking culture around the world.

  • Indonesia has one of the highest smoking rates in the world, with 76.2% of adult males smoking, according to the WHO. Smoking is actually on the increase, with big tobacco companies getting in on the act of selling kreteks, cigarettes containing cloves that are favored by Indonesians. Kretek brands target young smokers and Indonesian culture, combined with clever marketing, have connected smoking inextricably with masculinity (only 4% of Indonesian women smoke). Smoking in public buildings is banned in Jakarta but the ban is enforced less and less away from the city. So if you are travelling on business to Indonesia, it’s inevitable that you will be enveloped in kretek smoke at some point.
  • Russia banned smoking in public places in 2013 but it’s still considered cool, associated with youth, glamour and rebellion. Some 59% of Russian males smoked in 2015, and 23% of females. Visit on business and you’ll find plenty of your contacts may nip outside for cigarette breaks, or favor outdoor pubs and restaurants in summer for business entertaining, where they can smoke. Complaining when a colleague lights up is considered uncool.
  • China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco, despite a growing anti-smoking lobby and new, stricter rules in Beijing. Some 47.6% of males smoke, although very few women. Smoking is associated with machismo and rules are often flouted, with people lighting up in seemingly inappropriate places, like hotel lobbies. Some Chinese believe that certain herbs and foods will protect them from the ill effects of cigarettes. It is completely normal for a Chinese contact to offer you, the visitor, a cigarette before lighting up themselves and in those restaurants that allow it, people will smoke throughout dinner. Declining their offer can cause them to lose face, so if you’re concerned, although it may be completely counter-intuitive, you could always take a cigarette, thank them and say you will save it for later.
  • Japan is a nation of enthusiastic smokers, with 33.7% of males indulging, despite the anti-smoking lobby gathering strength. The Japanese are known as conformist but smoking seems to be one area where rules are broken, with smokers gathered outside offices, crammed into public pods, or breaking the rules on smoke-free streets. Smoking is associated with relaxing and letting one’s hair down, which normally takes place in the izakaya, the after-work drinking pub. For now, some pubs and even restaurants still allow smoking, so do not express dismay if your Japanese counterparts light up. What takes place in the bar stays in the bar and criticizing their personal habits could cause a serious loss of face.
  • In the USA, the anti-smoking lobby is famously strong and to a great extent, has been successful. Smoking is now associated with low income groups and a lack of education, which is borne out by statistics and is a far cry from the Hollywood glamour linked to the habit less than a century ago. Taking a cigarette break from a business meeting, particularly if you are the only smoker in the gathering, may be seen as a sign of moral weakness.
  • Austria, despite its affluence and apparent sophistication, is one of the last bastions of smoking in western Europe. A ban on smoking in bars and restaurants that was due to come into force in May 2018 has been scrapped by the new, right-wing government, citing ‘freedom of choice’. Some say the high prevalence of smokers in Austria, particularly Vienna, is something to do with arrogance; an inherent belief that they, and their coffee culture, are special. Some establishments have banned smoking, targeting the youth, family and tourism markets, but do not be surprised if you are entertained by Austrian colleagues in a bar or restaurant where lighting up is still allowed.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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