A very good friend of ours always went out on the balcony every hour when she came to visit, summer or winter. She doesn’t do that any more. She finally stopped smoking at age 55. The motivation to quit that had eluded her for 30 years came suddenly, and sadly too late, when her hacking cough was confirmed as lung cancer. Lena died within twelve months of the diagnosis aged 56. Her “only pleasure in life” left behind two sons, husband, mother aged 85 as well as many friends.

Long before Lena died I had been in the habit of asking for a no-smoking table every time I booked a table in a restaurant. At best this is met with mumbles and weak excuses about the establishment being too small for such a luxury. Usually the answer is short and to the point “we don’t have one”.

It came as little surprise to learn that Switzerland is number two after Hungary in the European smoking league. As I sit in any restaurant, I am only two painfully aware of the Swiss love of the weed as the smoke wafts over my food. When I get home I find I stink of tobacco down to my underwear. If this is the effect on my underpants, how, I worry, have my lungs fared from their passive exposure to other people’s unhealthy habit.

On a recent trip to Italy, my usual request for a no smoking table, always greeted with so apathetically in Switzerland, was met on a number of occasions with an enthusiastic smile and confirmation that the whole establishment was smoke free. A week after trying Scandinavian specialities in Ikea store’s café just outside Zurich and finding the small no smoking area full, I found myself in Ikea’s south London branch. There the restaurant is no smoking with a small area for smokers, which was empty.

Even the tobacco companies have finally coughed up and admitted their products are killing their customers. In the UK & USA the clear evidence that their habit kills, has persuaded smoker to quit in droves. Bringing down the level from 40% of the adult population in 1978 to 27% today. This was not done overnight nor was it achieved without considerable financial input by the governments concerned. In Switzerland between 1992 and 1997 smoking in the age group 17 to 24 actually increased from 31% to 43%.

As in the USA, in Britain it is the lower classes poor and uneducated who waste their money and damage their health smoking. 33% of manual workers smoke compared to 21% of non-manual worker – there smoking is seen as a sign of stupidity. Taking this a step further, Nevada University confirms that 70% of manic-depressive patients smoke, along with 90% of schizophrenic and alcoholics smoke. Clearly, smoking, far from being cool, is often an outward sign of a low IQ, if not something much worse. Sadly, this is a message that has certainly not reached Switzerland.

8,000 people a year in this country die from smoking related causes – 800 of them before they reach 55. When air pollution reaches danger level – without a single related death occurring – predefined measures are put into force. Speed limits are reduced on the Autobahns and ‘car-free’ days are called for. We led Europe with the introduction of catalytic converters. But hang back with any measures to curb our population from smoking.

Millions of taxpayers’ money is poured into recommending us to indulge in ‘Safer Sex’. AIDS kills less than 250 people a year here. Yet the only advertising we see about tobacco is to encourage us to smoke more.

Smokers need help to quit. A pack of 20 cigarettes in the UK costs over Fr10. It is no coincidence that Switzerland’s low taxed tobacco goes hand in hand with record high levels of smoking. While Switzerland may lead the world in environmental matters, why does it stubbornly remain thirty years behind on this vital public health matter?

Bundespräsident Kaspar Villiger failed grasp the tobacco nettle. Perhaps his surname held him back: Villiger must be the world’s only cycle company “in love with tobacco”. The ten rappen extra on a pack of 20 cigarettes was a victory for the tobacco lobby, but the long-term losers are Swiss smokers.

Switzerland is a great place to live – we could make it even greater and save lives at the same time by finally getting to grips with our land’s last filthy habit. It is pointless monitoring what comes out a car’s exhaust pipe, when what the driver is putting directly into his lungs is doing far more damage.

The example has to come from the top, and it does not help having a Minister of Health who smokes cigarettes, nor a Minister of Sport sporting a pipe. Yes, statistics prove that Swiss men and woman live the longest in Europe – but for how much longer?

30.01.2002