The perceived prevalence of cigarette smoking in Germany has always baffled me. Germans are model citizens in so many regards: they lead the world in recycling, they are generally very active and physically fit, they love to eat organic, etc. etc. Hell, one of the classic stereotypes of Germans is that they will never cross a street when the pedestrian light is red, for fear of setting a poor example for young children.
So why, in God's name, do they smoke cigarettes like it's 1950 and lung cancer isn't a thing yet?
Almost every American I've ever spoken with has made the observation that smoking is far more common in Germany than it is in the U.S. And almost every German I have ever spoken with is surprised and a bit confused by this observation. I think Germans simply don't question this part of their society, and also I think the idea of Americans claiming some sort of health moral highground over Germans seems a bit... rich.
Crunching the numbers*
First of all, some data to prove that we Americans aren't just making this up -- Germans really do smoke more than Americans, and the difference is fairly significant.
In this graph (using data from the WHO), we look at the prevalence of smoking among persons 15 years or older -- so, roughly, the estimated percentage of the population that smokes (the age standardization mentioned in the title is a way of ensuring countries can be compared to each other even when the age distributions within the countries differ). The U.S. is over on the far left with 17.2 percent, Germany toward the far right with 30.3 percent. They are only being compared against other European countries in this chart.
Here's another demonstration of the difference in smoking habits. This graph looks at yearly per capita consumption of cigarettes:
The data here comes from the Tobacco Atlas (the dataset can be found under the "Resources" bar). The gap between the U.S. and Germany is a bit smaller than the previous graph, but the numbers still show a noticeable difference: 1480.04 in Germany versus 1082.87 for the U.S. So, the average German smokes roughly 400 more cigarettes a year than the average American (though, given that the percentage of smokers is lower, perhaps the Americans who do smoke do so more heavily?).
The point of these graphs is to say, it's not just in our heads. Germans really do smoke more. Why might we smoke less in the U.S.?
U.S. attitudes vs. German attitudes
I have a few thoughts there, although I must admit I have not researched in-depth the respective anti-smoking policies of the U.S. and Germany. Probably most significant factor in the U.S. is the fact that we have fairly strict laws surrounding cigarette use. It varies state-by-state, but generally you cannot smoke indoors, smoking is banned in most outdoor public spaces, including public parks (or if not outright banned, restricted to specific areas) and there are further restrictions, like how you have to stand 30 feet away from a doorway to smoke. Also critical: these laws are not just on the books -- they're actually enforced regularly.
Couple that with a very aggressive anti-tobacco campaign in the late 1990s and 2000s (remember those Truth ads, Americans?), and you end up with a fairly widespread anti-smoking attitude in the U.S. Which is not to say that plenty of people don't smoke, because many people in the U.S. do. But it is seen as a vice, almost something shameful, and it's not something that common society is expected to tolerate.
Meanwhile in Germany, you can smoke basically anywhere outdoors, and in many bars too. There are some laws against indoor smoking, but I believe there are many exceptions as well as a general lack of enforcement -- certainly in Berlin, it is extremely common to encounter bars where smoking is allowed. Outdoors, it's generally a free-for-all.
According to Wikipedia, a national-level ban on smoking in transportation vehicles (planes, busses, etc.) was not enacted until 2007, although many states had such bans before then. You could even smoke in university buildings -- including lecture halls -- until the early 2000s. I am struggling to find any specific dates, but for example, here is an article from 2003 talking about one university's recently-enacted anti-smoking policy for within university buildings. Another Spiegel article I found from 2003 also talks about a growing country-wide push for smoke-free university buildings. Yes, happening in 2003.
A tale of two smokers
One of my favorite examples that I often tell Germans when explaining American attitudes toward smoking is that of President Obama. It was always one of the worst-kept secrets in American politics that Obama was (perhaps still is) a smoker. On a select few occasions, his spokespeople have acknowledged that he was working to kick the habit, and occasionally there are news stories about it. But the very fact that this is news at all says a lot about American attitudes toward smoking. It is something shameful and particularly unbecoming of a president. Therefore, it is something that must be hidden at all costs, and the public line must always be that he is "working hard to quit" or something to that effect.
Compare that with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who smoked constantly, including during press interviews. That is not common per se -- you certainly don't see other politicians mimicking that -- but it was tolerated as a normal thing (admittedly, in large part due to his prominent status), and I never heard anyone bristle about the example he set for children.
I like this quote from a Spiegel article on Schmidt and his smoking:
The quote translated:
Although obviously times have changed and most Germans at least know that smoking has ill effects (I think?), it simply doesn't carry the same stigma here. I have no idea how many German politicians smoke, but it seems safe to assume no one is keeping track, because who would care?
It is certainly not the case that Germany doesn't try to dissuade people from smoking. The packaging on cigarettes here is usually quite jarring: packs always bear some large-font text like, "SMOKING CAN BE DEADLY" or "SMOKING CAUSES DEADLY LUNG CANCER." Increasingly the bear images of the gruesome physical side effects smoking can cause. But somehow, these warnings just don't seem to have had an effect, and smoking remains common and tolerated across all segments of German society.
* If you are interested in seeing the code for the two charts, see the GitHub repository here.