A Brief Rant About a Filthy Habit

If you are thinking of moving to Vienna (or possibly even traveling here, depending on how sensitive you are to these things) there is something you should know.

The Viennese smoke like it’s 1955. Seriously, think “Mad Men.” I thought I might be imagining how bad it was compared to other countries, until I saw this:

Image from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation via NPR
Image from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation via NPR

See that red spot in Central Europe? That is the ashtray of the Western world. Austria falls just behind Greece, Macedonia, and Bulgaria in smoking rates, according to this NPR story on the subject.

I am not the kind of person who cannot deal with the merest whiff of cigarette smoke. I grew up in the South, and am old enough to remember when smoking was common, even in restaurants. I even smoked occasionally myself as a teenager. While I’d rather not sit right next to a smoker, I do not run screaming when someone lights up.

But here in Vienna, it can get pretty nasty even for the relatively smoke-tolerant.

Smoking is still allowed in restaurants and bars. Quite often, the separator between the smoking section and “non-smoking section” (HUGE air quotes here) is an open door, or even just a screen with plenty of air circulating around it. This section is also quite often located at the front of the establishment, meaning you have to walk through a cloud of smoke to get to your table. Seriously, people. Yuck.

If people aren’t smoking inside, you can bet they are smoking right outside the door. Little smoking tables, like this one outside a beauty salon, are common.

Die young and stay pretty.
Die young and stay pretty.

I walk around downtown all the time, and frequently dodge smoke trails from people walking along with a cigarette. Which will soon be tossed onto the ground. Though the city of Vienna provides suggestively designed trash cans on every street corner, and sweeps the streets quite regularly, little drifts of cigarette butts pile up along every sidewalk.

Practically screams "put your butt HERE."
Practically screams “put your butt HERE.”

It’s an interesting contrast to the glamour in many shop windows.

Beautiful ball gown.
Beautiful and insanely expensive ball gown.
Butts piling up under the shop window.
Butts piling up under the very same shop window.
Butts collecting by the entrance to an U-Bahn station. Right next to one of those specially designed trash cans.
Butts collecting by the entrance to an U-Bahn station. Right next to one of those specially designed trash cans.

There doesn’t appear to be any age restriction on smoking. If there is, the omnipresence of these tobacco stores and vending machines negates it.

The sign says "smoking can kill you." REALLY?
The sign says “smoking can kill you.” REALLY? Vending machine to the right, just about at ten-year-old level.

SAMSUNGAt the same shop: a range of designer lighters for every budget, up to and including a 265 Euro model. And hedgehogs. Do not ask me to explain those.

In fact, though I don’t understand how such a wealthy, well-educated, tidy, and “wellness”-obsessed people can smoke and drop their butts everywhere, I don’t honestly care if they want to kill themselves. It’s not my country and I won’t be paying for their ventilators, so whatever.

My real problem with this nicotine-addicted country is that my teenage son took up smoking almost as soon as he got here. Well, why not? All his friends smoke, and there’s no problem buying cigarettes. The drinking age is 16, so hanging out in smoky bars is normal for kids here, too. Even if my son never lit one cigarette, he’d still breathe a lot of smoke, and his clothes would still stink on Sunday morning.

I’ll tell you why not. My grandfather died at age 62 from lung cancer. He was not a perfect person, but he was a really good grandfather and he should have been around a while longer.

Quality time with Grandaddy.
Quality time with Grandaddy and a light-up Santa pin.

Would he still be living if he hadn’t smoked? Probably not. He was a man who liked his bacon, too. But, he would have almost certainly been around to enjoy his great-grandchildren for a while. I think he would especially have thought my son (who is named after him) was a hoot.

Driving his great-grandaddy's tractor.
Driving his great-grandaddy’s tractor.

I don’t remember my grandfather being an especially heavy smoker, but he did start as a young teenager, just like my son. All the boys smoked back then, or so I’m told. So that means he smoked for almost 50 years until it killed him.

Long after he died, my grandmother said, “well, we told him not to smoke, didn’t we?” Pretty much sums it up.

People are irrational. Teenagers, especially are irrational. And kinda stupid, honestly.

My son has allergies and asthma. Since he took up smoking, he coughs constantly, and seems have a new cold every two or three weeks. Yes, I tell him, over and over again that he will be much healthier if he stops smoking. Yes, I ban smoking in the house, and throw away cigarettes and lighters whenever I find them. But, it’s legal and easy to smoke here, and ultimately beyond my control.

This, plus yelling at your teenager's friends a couple of times, will get you a smoke-free home.
This, plus yelling at your teenager’s friends a couple of times, will get you a smoke-free home in Vienna. His clothes and bedroom still smell like smoke, though. Yuck.

I don’t know if my son would have taken up smoking regularly if we had stayed in the States, or even if we had been posted to some other, less nicotine-crazed, country. But I think it would be much less likely.

So yes, I have a problem with the Viennese and their filthy habit. I just hope and pray that my son will get a clue before it’s too late. I do not ever want to have to tell him, “well, we told you not to smoke, didn’t we?”


  1. I lost my father to lung cancer. Sure, he had quit smoking when I was little, and he did live to 70, but he was so very, amazingly healthy otherwise! He could have passed for 50 and was very active too… golfing, fishing, gardening, etc. My kids never had a chance to know him 😦 He would have been an awesome grandpa too. I hope your son will figure out, sooner than later, that smoking isn’t worth it and he should drop it like the nasty, stinky, unhealthy habit that it is, and that he will realize that he is stronger than the drug.


  2. I hear you. The cigarette smoke is gross. The devil is in the details of course, but I would probably qualify the smokers as “those living in Vienna,” rather than the classic Viennese. 40% of Vienna’s population has a migration background that include the Czechs, Serbs and Slovenes, who consume more cigarettes per adult capita than the Austrians, with the Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians and Turks not too far behind. All of these groups, and then some, reside in Vienna. And curiously, Austria’s lung cancer mortality rate is substantially lower than that of the US.

    Statistically I think we dodged the nicotine bullet in our home, most thankfully. We arrived in Vienna right before our son turned 16. He doesn’t smoke, his friends don’t smoke, and somehow they generally manage to find (somewhat) smoke-free environments to hang out in on the weekends. We, on the other hand, almost always end up walking through a smoking zone to get to our “Nicht rauchen” table at a restaurant. Perhaps if the Viennese undertook a study of how many of their dogs died due to second-hand cigarette smoke, the policies might change. 😉


  3. I have to say, I lived in Prague and have visited Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The only one of those places where I saw anywhere near as many smokers as Vienna was Budapest. And most of the people I see smoking downtown are speaking German.


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