Nazis & Smoking

Does a new advertisement campaign to curb smoking resembles dubious tactics of the past?

Opinion | Christian Cummins | February 2009

We should never forget the Nazi period, of course. I’d recommend anyone to go at least once to the museums at the sites of Auschwitz or Mauthausen. But I’m becoming increasingly sick of that period of unparalleled murder and brutality being used for petty political point scoring. No, despite all the vileness of Saddam Hussain, the UN’s attempts to avoid war in Iraq were not akin to the folly of appeasing Hitler, nor is it right to liken the U.S. Patriot Act, despite all its flaws, to Hitler’s Enabling Act. Can’t we criticise things we don’t like without bringing the ultimate ghouls out of the cupboard unless it is truly 100% necessary?

Now the cheapening of the Nazi crimes for political short change has reached a new low, I think. I recently visited the homepage of the Austrian Smokers’ Movement and was astounded to find, on the front page, a quote from Joseph Goebbels, printed in that sinister scraggly gothic type-script of which the Nazis were so fond.

"The German woman does not smoke," it reads "she raises children."

So the tyranny of the Nazi period is being brazenly used as a petty tool of stubborn resistance to a wave of tobacco regulation that has been sweeping across Europe (and has reached as far east as Croatia, which passed a law banning smoking in bars and restaurants this month.)

We are, it seems, to remember that Hitler disliked smoking, just as he did like painting, puppy dogs and vegetarian menus, and we are to conveniently forget that Goebbels himself was a heavy smoker. Perhaps the lobbyists would like us to conclude, by extension, that the governments of Ireland, Italy, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Lichtenstein and Croatia, all of whom have adopted strict bans, have fascist tendencies? The slur is so absurd that it would be hilarious, were it not so emotionally effective. Just look at the comments posted on internet forums to see how widely it is repeated. And it’s such a cheap shot.

It was, of course, inevitable that the smoking issue would come to a head again once the evenings became darker and colder and people left the fresh air of the Viennese Schanigärten for the stuffy interiors of their favorite drinking spots. There are plenty of things left to argue about, with a wishy-washy compromise law, that few people - including the café owners themselves - seem to fully understand, now in effect.

The doctors, understandably, want us to see it primarily as a health issue. In an article published this summer in Die Presse leading Austrian doctors, including the head cardiologist at Vienna’s General Hospital, Gerald Maurer, described how exposure to passive smoking plays a decisive role in 1000 heart attacks per year in Austria and that just 8 years of work in the gastronomy sector doubles your chance of developing lung cancer. With such work often the only employment available for cash-strapped students, the moral imperative is clear.   The bar and café owners (who already obey dozens of government-imposed regulations on food hygiene and fire-safety) want us to see it primarily as an economic issue – and who can blame them in financially troubled times such as these. They fear that their livelihoods are a stake, and that is not something to be taken lightly. Whether their fears are justified is a matter that can and will be discussed ad nauseum, as the economic statistics in the countries with strict regulations seem to tell a different story to each reader.

But it is perhaps significant that in the German province of Bavaria, a region culturally very similar to Austria, strict anti-tobacco regulations were relaxed in October, apparently by popular demand.

So it’s about health and it’s about economics. It’s about money and life. It’s not about the Nazis.  Please let’s, for the sake of decency, leave them out of it.

Other articles from this issue