cigarette buts in ashtray
Photo: JULIA ENGEL/UNSPLASH

Portugal targets Pat, the expat, with new law and columnist reacts with resolution for 2024

‘Tis the season to make New Year’s resolutions. As my regular reader already knows, good ol’Pat has made it a helpful tradition to suggest resolutions for others as well as for himself.

For example, Pat might suggest that a prominent local wine critic might choose a wine to review that costs less than €15 – you know, just for fun.

Pat might also hint that new immigrants to this fair land resist posting pictures on Facebook of their massive piles of luggage. It’s not really an accomplishment. Another constructive suggestion is that politicians try telling the truth this year on social media, like Truth Social.

While the expat understands that these suggestions aren’t always appreciated in the same holiday spirit that they are made, they are still offered with nothing but good cheer.

So, what about himself? What can be resolved and maintained in an effort at self-improvement through at least the month of January? Can I be more patient with bloggers who declare themselves experts on “the secrets” of Portugal after being in the country for over two weeks? Can I and should I learn to play pickleball? Well maybe, but it already seems out-of-style – a fad that’s passed.

Actually, I have no choice – forces have conspired to dictate my New Year’s resolution for 2024. Based on doctor’s orders, I hereby resolve to stop smoking. In the face of Portugal’s reaffirmed war on smoking, where it has been decided that it is in the public interest to have a smoke-free society by 2040, and in the opinion of my general practitioner, who worries I won’t be around for 2025 if I don’t stop, I’ve given in and quit – cold turkey, no patch, no pill, no chewing gum.

Don’t worry – I’m not taking credit for being original or clever by coming up with this particular resolution. Heck, my esteemed colleague Skip Bandele wrote in this very publication about a smokeless future quite recently. Many of my well-informed readers have already recognized not smoking as a given. In the US and much of Europe, the prevalence of smoking is in steep decline for a variety of reasons, most importantly the threat to health, which was my doctor’s point. I’m not saying that I felt directly targeted, but the new smoking prohibitions proposed by the Portuguese government seemed to have Ol’Pat in mind. I can spot a trend when it slaps me in the face.

One of the provisions of the Portuguese law is an attempt to make tobacco products less readily available, limiting sales to tobacconists, petrol stations and airports (strangely, two of those places are locations where you’re not allowed to smoke). This works for me. The main way I am able to avoid taking a puff is by not having any cigs handy. If you don’t buy them then you can’t light one up.

There are also prohibitions to where you can smoke, even outdoors, like not outside schools, colleges and hospitals. When I first arrived in Portugal, smoking was even permitted inside some bars and restaurants. Now in Quarteira, you’re not even allowed to smoke on the beach (even if you bury your butts) and that’s way outside.

As reported by the Portugal Resident, Portugal’s secretary of state for health promotion, Margarida Tavares, recently stressed that the government’s tobacco proposal “is not prohibitionist” but rather intended to “help those who want to quit smoking”. That’s me.

The main problem is that quitting is not that easy, since smoking is both an addiction and a habit. My brother, a successful businessman, always said that cigarettes were a great product – “once you smoked one, you want another one.” To be honest, being “prohibitionist” is probably not a bad thing, since never starting is the best plan of all.

For me, not only did I develop a physical yearning for a smoke, but the act became a habit that I incorporated into my daily life. Every time I got into my car, I put the key into the ignition, put on my sunglasses, rolled down the window and lit a fag. I even incorporated smoking into the act of writing, you know, like coming up with a column about new year’s resolutions, for example. What I used to do was sit down in front of the computer, ignite my cigarette with an always handy lighter, take a puff and then type for a while; puff and type; puff and type … obviously I was thinking during every puff, composing the next few insightful sentences.

Stopping puffing didn’t stop the thought processes completely, but it was habitual and is still somewhat distracting. I’ve just now realized that I would also take a cigarette break about every half hour or so, and go out on the terrace and sit in the sunshine, but not anymore. My only break is to visit the bathroom, which is not as satisfying.

By the way, the yearning for a cigarette at times never goes away completely. I know because I gave up before – at least twice for about 10 years each. Way back when, I was teaching in high school, where I was coaching a public speaking team that competed on the county and state level. So, there I was, after school, sitting at my desk, with an ashtray in an open drawer, listening to a student practice her persuasive speech about not smoking.

Her presentation wasn’t very good and so I made a number of suggestions about strengthening her arguments. There was a slogan back then called “IQ”, which implied that “I quit” because I’m smart. Anyway, at that moment, I put my cigarette out in my ashtray and maintained my intelligence quotient for nearly a decade.

I’m not sure why I started up again, but I did.

Then there was my 20-year career teaching at a community college, which turned out to also coincide with the progression of public smoking prohibitions in most institutions. In the early ‘80s (which is not ancient history), there were ashtrays on the walls right outside the classroom doors. As the professor (me) would approach, six or seven students would tamp out their butts and push the little trap door in the ashtray and dart in before I arrived.

Some professors even smoked during their lectures, though smoking was supposedly prohibited in classrooms. The dean of the college had his office right down from mine and usually filled the corridor with a heavy smog of pipe smoke. When the college senate eventually disallowed smoking in the building, the smokers would gather at the doorways and puff away causing anyone who wanted to enter or exit to run the gauntlet.

The argument about “smokers’ rights” was lost when it was determined that second-hand smoke was harmful to those around those who were doing the exhaling. You, readers of a certain age, can remember going to bars, where a murky haze hung just over the tables. At the time, we didn’t realize we were poisoning the waitresses, but when we found out, it had to be stopped.

Claiming it was a personal decision whether or not one wished to risk his or her own health was no longer enough. Then we knew we were also potentially harming our kids in the car with us, our colleagues at the next desk in the office and even our lover on the other pillow. There were places where people complained about smoke wafting into their open apartment windows from other balconies.

Eventually, the administration of the college put up “no-smoking” signs at all the entrances and established smoking areas in designated locations, usually little uncovered patios, around campus. I guess they thought rain would put the cigarettes out.

Cold weather also helped to dampen the enthusiasm of some but not all smoking addicts.

By the time I was ready to retire in 2006, the movement at the college was to make the entire campus smoke free, inside, outside, in your car, behind the field house, everywhere.

When I went back to the States for a June wedding about a year ago, I discovered just how effective anti-smoking campaigns like the one Portugal is trying to implement can be. The groom’s dinner was held in a rural setting with a big barn, where the band and the bar were located, with the tables under a huge tent. There was one guy hiding behind the barn sneaking a cigarette – me. Three hundred guests, and I was the only smoker.

So, it’s over, right? The Portuguese government can turn its attention away from poor ol’Pat and his ilk and concentrate on other healthcare concerns and things like education and housing. Well, maybe they should anyway, but smoking is not going away any time some, at least not worldwide.

Remember back in the late 1990s when states across America finally held tobacco companies liable for cigarette-related illnesses and sued “big tobacco” to recover public outlays for medical expenses due to smoking?

Under the Master Settlement Agreement, seven tobacco companies agreed to change the way they market tobacco products and to pay the states an estimated $206 billion. That was a lot of money, but the big companies barely blinked and are still running profitable enterprises across the globe, just not everywhere.

The prime minister of Great Britain, Rishi Sunak, for example, wants to create a “smoke-free generation” by prohibiting anyone 14 or younger from legally purchasing cigarettes. Not everywhere in Europe, but Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Romania and Spain have strong enforcement of smoking prohibitions, while places like Cyprus, Czech Republic, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia are quite lax, with the rest in between. Surprisingly, in South America, virtually every country has strong anti-smoking laws, with Uruguay leading the way, with a 100% smoke-free national policy.

In the USofA, about a dozen states have not enacted statewide bans because they grow tobacco there. One thing many state governments discovered was that when they needed to increase taxes, taxing tobacco (something called a “sin tax”) was difficult to argue against.

An interesting note is that Mexico is much stricter with a ban on smoking in most public places, which means that those pesky immigrants at the border can’t even light up while they’re waiting to wade across the Rio Grande.

So instead, the industry has targeted Africa and Asia, that have the highest rates of tobacco use and over all much less prohibition. Which means that future retirees who want to smoke should stop driving up real estate prices in Portugal but rather spend their black lung years in Mozambique or Indonesia.

Now that I’ve stopped, I’m willing to admit that smoking is a dirty little habit. I’m no longer leaving little deposits of ash everywhere, including under my fingernails. Try to picture a single pile of cigarette butts in one place from all over the world. I bet it would be higher than one of the great Pyramids in Egypt and not as popular with tourists.

I’ve also noticed that I’m saving a significant amount of money on a weekly basis. Every Thursday, I go to Paulina’s in Santa Bárbara de Nexe to pick up “a Ressie”, some lemons and my weekly supply of cigarettes. Instead of my bill coming to over €40, I’m spending around €5 without the carton of Lucky Strikes. And Paulina, instead of being disappointed by the decrease in commerce, has been very supportive (I don’t think she’ll sell me any if I revert).

In fact, everybody, including my smoking friends, has done nothing but encourage me, which is a nice positive way to start the new year.

By Pat the Expat
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For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.