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'Taking the Cure'

Why foreigners find B.C. a perfect place to kick the smoking habit.

By Pavel Gonzalez 4 Nov 2004 |
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Liz Flores held a cigarette in her right hand as she screamed into her friend's ear, competing with 100 decibels of endorphin-releasing dance music. Under strobe lights in a typical Friday night at the Escena, one of the hippest nightclubs in her hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, Liz danced, laughed, drank and smoked. And smoked. And smoked. By the time she left the club, four hours had passed and she had puffed at least eight cigarettes.

Those days are gone. It has been more than a year since the last time she lit up. In fact, ever since Liz arrived in Vancouver, she has not even touched a cigarette. This is a new no-smoking record for her, one she is especially proud of, and for good reason considering that for the previous eight years she smoked no less than 20 cigarettes on a daily basis in Monterrey.

Mind you, she did try to quit several times before: by mere willpower, using nicotine patches, chewing gum, or any other remedy that came her way -even "hypnotic" audio and videocassettes. But nothing worked. She would stop her habit for a couple of weeks, only to find herself smoking even more heavily afterwards.

Victorians did it

Liz and a lot of other foreign visitors to British Columbia are pursuing the 21st century version of what Victorians used to call "taking the cure." Over a century ago, European and North American patients with lung problems were prescribed travel to hot, dry climates, where they'd breathe in the healthier climate and come back feeling noticeably better.

Today, "taking the cure" for smokers means immigrating to clean, environmentally correct cities to reduce your smoking habits dramatically.

Culture shock struck Liz just a few days after her arrival to Canada, when she was invited to an Irish pub in Vancouver. That, she says, was when she found out what "no smoking" was all about. "It was strange to be in a club, at night, and see nobody was smoking. I was drinking, having a good time with my friends, but I just wasn't allowed to light a cigarette. That felt unusual, but at the same time I knew it was better for everyone," she explains.

Pricey and prohibited

But it is the whole Vancouver "package," not just its nightclub culture, that makes the difference. Legislation, social norms, and even the cost of cigarettes combine to create the modern version of "the cure." As Liz found, "no one smokes around here, so no one has a cigarette to spare, you can't smoke anywhere, and cigarettes are so expensive!"

Liz, now 24, had a hard time enjoying smoking in the first place. For her, it was social pressure and the desire to belong to a group that led her to try a cigarette. "I had to work hard to like smoking. The first few times I felt I was choking, but we were a group of friends -the 'cool' gang at school- and we were all trying, so we kept on going for some time until we got it and, stupid as it may sound, we were proud," she remembers.

Not anymore. On Canadian soil, she is ashamed to put a cigarette between her lips. "To me, it seems like if you light a cigarette here people will look at you as if you were mass-killing deer. It is so not-cool to smoke I even feel embarrassed to say I ever did," she says.

So Liz has quit. Simple as that. Done. Well, for now, at least.

'Rain stronger than cigarette'

If Vancouver belongs to an expanding, global smoke-free zone, all of Asia remains one vast smoking section. Which is why Asians, like Mexicans, face massive culture shock when they arrive here.

Cheng Li, a UBC graduate student from Shanghai, China, has found it hard to adjust to British Columbia. Not only has he had difficulties learning the English language, but he is also grappling with quitting smoking, cold turkey. At first he was "dying" whenever he even caught the slightest whiff of tobacco fumes. But soggy weather and wet blanket attitudes here soon doused his craving. "Canadian culture was completely different and new, so smoking reduced the stress and relaxed me, but after a while the cold and the rain were stronger than the cigarette," Li laughs.

In the long run, of course, this has had a positive impact in Li's health, as he leads a healthier life than he ever did in his own country. "Smoking spaces are becoming more and more limited in China, especially in big cities, but they are still not as strict as Vancouver, so I really suffered during my first few weeks here. But health is important for everyone, so I am happy I could quit smoking," he admits.

Social pressure eases up

UBC sociology professor Gerry Veenstra, who specializes in the sociology of health, states there are two main forces that influence smokers -- namely, social pressure and nicotine addiction. "It is usually social pressure what leads smokers to try their first cigarette. Of course, there may be a physical or psychological dependence after a while, but it is not the triggering factor," he explains.

In societies where smoking is commonly tolerated, these factors push in one same direction, so addiction and socialization both encourage individuals to continue smoking. However, in societies in which social pressure is against smoking, struggle and balance of these forces take place, and eventually make it harder to smokers to keep their habit.

"On the one hand, addiction may be pushing the individual towards smoking, but on the other hand, in a particular cultural context smoking is a deviant behaviour, an undesirable element, so context is pushing them in the opposite direction. That, of course, makes it harder to continue smoking," the professor says.

According to Veenstra, Canadian culture affects immigrants in a variety of profound ways, including the perception of smoking itself. "Whereas in their home countries smoking could be seen as a way to help people deal with stress or cope with everyday life, here it may be different. This plays a huge influence in a person's decision to smoke or quit smoking," he adds.

This is particularly true in Vancouver, where healthy behaviour is encouraged by strict smoking legislation in public places. "British Columbia has succeeded in this matter, and Vancouver is certainly healthier in comparison to other Canadian cities. I was a smoker myself in Toronto, but quit when I came here," Veenstra says.

Lasting cure?

But what happens when an immigrant to Vancouver returns home, and finds temptation smouldering wherever two or more are gathered in public? For Alejandro Castro, at least, it looks like "the cure" continues to take. Castro, 32, spent six months in Vancouver three years ago, and cut way back on his smoking while here. Then he went back home, to breathe free in the world's largest and most polluted metropolitan area: Mexico City.

While in British Columbia, Castro went from smoking 20 cigarettes per day, to just two or three. And he's continued to keep his habit in check. His intense cravings never returned. "Vancouver was like shock therapy for me. All of a sudden, if you want to smoke, you have to go out in the rain and the cold weather. How pleasant is that? Now, I am smoking more than I did in Canada, but not nearly as much as I did before I went there," he explains.

"I don't think I will ever be able to smoke 20 cigarettes a day again, even if I wanted to," he adds, "I am back to a place much more tolerant to smokers, but it's not like I have to take full advantage of it and smoke a thousand cigarettes just because I can."

Born, raised and living in Mexico City, Pável González does not need to smoke to get his daily dose of deadly airborne toxins, to which he has by now become addicted. He has worked in Mexico's, television networks Televisa and TV Azteca, and freelanced for Cambio and TV y Novelas magazines.

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