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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Carl Ipsen's "Fumo: Italy's Love Affair with the Cigarette"

Filtered Nazionali.  We smoked
the real thing. 
Our introduction to Italian smoking habits came in the fall of 1962, when we were both students in Stanford University's study abroad program--this one in Florence.  We were pack-a-day smokers, too, and either unaware or unconcerned with the health effects of our habit; it was two years before the U.S. Surgeon General's report firmly linked smoking to lung cancer.  Marlboro was our brand of choice (it was first sold legally in Italy in 1954), but it was prohibitively expensive, and so we settled for Winstons ("taste good like a cigarette should") when we could get them, but mostly smoked Nazionali, a harsh, unfiltered smoke made with Italian dark tobacco.  At the time, Nazionali was the best-selling brand in Italy by far; despite the "boom" of the 1950s, most Italians could not afford to smoke anything else on a regular basis.  The boys described in the novels of Pier Paolo Pasolini were obsessed with cigarettes, but too poor--certainly much poorer than we Stanford students--to smoke anything but Nazionali.

Pietro Saporetti, "Emancipated Woman,"
1881.  Smoking among women
was rare at the time.  
Not wanting to get lung cancer, we quit cold turkey in 1969, and American smoking rates fell throughout the 1970s.  But Italians--as a group--did not quit.  One of the conclusions drawn by Carl Ipsen's Fumo, his new, engaging, and fascinating history of "Italy's love affair with the cigarette" (the subtitle) is that more Italian men gave up the habit in every decade after 1950 as they became more middle class and health conscious, but more Italian women smoked every decade after 1960 as they became more liberated and assertive. Overall Italian smoking rates did not decline until after 2000.

Then, in January, 2005, under the regime of Silvio Berlusconi and his anti-smoking health minister, Girolamo Sirchia, an extraordinary thing happened.  A smoking ban passed by the Italian parliament went into effect.  It was known as the Sirchia Law, and it was, by Italian standards, draconian: smoking was prohibited in all public  places and offices, but also in bars and restaurants and other shops, which were, of course, privately owned.

The Sirchia Law wasn't the first effort to regulate smoking.  In 1962, the parliament had banned all cigarette advertising; in 1975, a nationwide ban on smoking in certain public places (hospital corridors and school classrooms, for example) was instituted--neither was enforced.  In 1985, a ban on smoking in all public places and offices, including bars and restaurants, was introduced but not passed; at that time, some local jurisdictions acted to enforce the 1975 ban (as in Empoli) or enacted their own local bans (as in the leftist bastion of Bologna).

We arrived in Rome on our regular spring visit just months after the 2005 prohibition was implemented nationwide.  We were sure it would be ignored, that hardcore Italian smokers--and many fit that description--would not surrender their smoking privileges easily.  We were wrong.  The Rome courtyard ("cortile") of Montecitorio (home of the Chamber of Deputies; Italy's House of Representatives) was, Ipsen notes, renamed "cortile Sirchia."  One of the few protests took place at the Termini train station, where journalist Giordano Bruno and TV host Funari lit up in a bar.  They were arrested, taken to a police station, and fined.  The law brought new pleasures, too: Romans (and other Italians) love their restaurants and their cuisine, and the smoking ban allowed them to enjoy those spaces smoke-free and to "properly" taste their food.

What Ipsen describes as the "cigarette century" in Italy began in the late-19th century among elites and spread downward in the social structure during the Great War and after.  The brand Nazionali was introduced by the Italian tobacco monopoly--the Monopolio--in 1900.  Triestian novelist Italo Svevo
made the cigarette central to his 1923 novel Zeno's Conscience, whose protagonist, Zeno, became "Italy's most famous smoker." (Svevo is a novelist we prize highly; we went to Trieste to follow his walks, during which he smoked, but we did not.)

Smoking depicted as elitist and decadent, 1930
Unlike in Germany, where Hitler instituted an anti-smoking campaign, Mussolini's regime--he was a non-smoker and into the cult of the body---did not discourage smoking. Indeed, several Fascist brands were introduced in the interwar years: Eja, featuring the fascio littorio symbol; A.O.I., (the initials representing Italian East Africa); O.N.D. (initials representing Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro, a Fascist after-work association).  Ipsen notes n this period, as well into the late 1900s, the Italian state was profiting handsomely from its monopoly, while knowing Italians were dying from smoking.

Me ne frego brand, 1935
Italo Balbo's flights to Rio de Janeiro and Chicago were both commemorated with cigarettes.  The story goes that a new Egyptian tobacco cigarette called Me ne frego ("I don't give a damn") was handed out to Italian troops on their way to war in Ethiopia in 1935. By encouraging the cultivation of tobacco in the southern province of Puglia and the Italian colony of Libya, the Mussolini government also achieved "autarchy" (economic self sufficiency) in the cigarette business, as it wanted to do in all sectors.

The offer of a cigarette is an
invitation to "friendship." 1954.  Ipsen
comments that outdoorsy woman in the ad
promoting Eidelweiss cigarette seems
to be offering more than just friendship.

Women's smoking was minimal--yet controversial--until the 1970s; in 1965, only 8% of Italian women smoked.  A woman with a cigarette in her hand could mean almost anything, including liberation, emancipation, transgression, decadence, or modernity.  If her palm was up, the sexual innuendo was heightened.

A dominant Giovanna, cigarette in hand, bends the
weaker male to her will.  Ossessione (1943)

As late as the 1940s, a woman smoking in a film signified a healthy penchant for dominance--the femme fatale, a Lady MacBeth up to no good, as in Ossessione (1943). Even so, Eva, a cigarette for women, was introduced in 1924.

The startling rise in women smokers began in the 1970s and continued into the next decade, when some 28% of Italian women smoked.  Rates were high among educated women, too; they not only rejected Fascism's body fetish, but used smoking as a sign of gender equality and independence. According to Ipsen, Italian feminists smoked in large numbers.

Mina, 1964.

Women's smoking was also supported by celebrity smoker/advocates, including Anna Magnani,
Sophia Loren, Silvia Pampanini, and the pop singer Mina, who in 1964--the year of the Surgeon General's report--celebrated smoking with a tune called "Fumo Blu" (Blue Smoke) ["Con me tu puoi/Fumare la tua pipa quando vuoi" - "With me you can smoke your pipe whenever you want"].

Smoking kills, but you can protect yourself 
with this filter, according to this ad.  
As we have seen, Italians were roughly 20 years behind Americans in accepting the health consequences of cigarette smoking and turning away from the habit.  The rush of women to smoking in the late 20th century accounts for part of the difference.  In addition, Italians were much more likely to believe that filtered cigarettes eliminated much, if not all, of the health risk.

Finally, Ipsen argues provocatively that Italians were "less risk averse" than Americans, steeped in a culture of "menefreghismo" ("I don't give a damn-ism").  They loved their lottery, drove their motorscooters without helmets, refused to wear seat belts and--here's the clincher--used the withdrawal method to prevent pregnancy.  "Withdrawal," writes Ipsen, "resembles a game of chance."  It's "risky, but with a margin of error that might or might not seem acceptable, it does work."  And so they smoked.

Carl Ipsen Fumo: Italy's Love Affair with the Cigarette was published this year by Stanford University Press.  It is widely available.


A postscript.  The appendix to Ipsen's book includes legal material he submitted in a case brought against a tobacco company by the family of an Italian man (who went on to live in Canada and the US) who died from smoking. Ipsen analyzed the Italian media's coverage of the risks of smoking for a law firm representing the tobacco company to support the defense that the man understood those risks. In a brief preface to the appendix Ipsen describes his as a "cautionary tale for other scholars attracted by the significant fees paid for work of this sort. I was told that the law firm received a summary judgment in its [its client's] favor in the case." Perhaps this book is partly Ipsen's effort at atonement, since in the book he concludes - in contrast to the material submitted to the law firm - that Italians were given much contradictory evidence about smoking and that the media promoted the notion that the link between smoking and lung disease was not clear and that filters or 'light' cigarettes could prevent any or much harm.  Dianne
Luigi Conconi, Ebbrezza ("Inebriation"), 1888.  Conconi also titled the painting "La vita libera" ("The free life" - Ipsen
suggests "libera" may have something of a "libertine" meaning here. 


jsam said...

Not forgetting MS.

And its packaging.

Carl Ipsen said...

I just came across this now. Thanks very much for engaging discussion of my book. The Italian edition is (finally) due out next week. Carl Ipsen