Berlin's smoking culture drew me here. It also gave me a reason to finally quit
A weekend trip to Berlin in 2014 convinced me to live here, with one of the factors being the freedom to smoke in most bars. Six years on and one year after quitting, I have a very different view of the city’s attitude towards smoking.
I smoked my first cigarette when I was sixteen, in an attempt to convince my classmates that I was not the loser they thought I was. Those early, after-school smoking sessions made me nauseous. But, little by little, the effects became less obnoxious until one day, I was a smoker.
As the great quit-smoking author Allen Carr says: “everyone remembers their first cigarette, but no one remembers when they decided to become a smoker”.
The smoking ban came into effect in the UK in 2007 when I was eighteen, which meant that my love affair with nicotine took place mainly outdoors and ultimately reduced the amount I smoked to no more than a couple of packets a week.
But when I moved to Berlin and was able to smoke inside, I felt like a teenager again, which increased the feeling of excitement of being in this vibrant, laid back city. This was definitely the place for me. Smoking was no big deal, everybody did it and those who didn’t, didn’t seem to mind it.
An official smoking ban was introduced in Berlin on January 1st, 2008 but with its numerous exceptions and lax enforcement, you could be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t exist. So I smoked even more.
All of my Berlin friends smoked, except one who had given up three years before we met and had never touched one since. I marvelled at her ability not to smoke and thought, maybe that will be me someday, but not now. I enjoy it too much.
Being able to smoke inside made me feel like a teenager again. Source: dpa
In 2016 I started working for a property management company which required me to spend two days a week with their branch in deepest Marzahn. It was like a throwback to East Berlin in the 1960s and everyone smoked in the office. After eating lunch together every day in the meeting room, it was time for Kaffee und Kippen (Coffee and Cigarettes).
The office manager and her second in command would happily chain smoke four to five cigarettes from the cartons they had bulk-bought in Poland. Sometimes I could join them for a second cigarette, but after that my head started to spin and my eyes would glaze over as their conversation and cigarettes smouldered on.
While I was working in this office my dad died. Although his death had nothing to do with cigarettes, it certainly sharpened my awareness of my own impending mortality. I decided it was time to finally act on this feeling of wanting to quit which had been nagging me for years.
Trying to quit
I went to a shiny new E-Cigarette shop in Friedrichshain, where a heavily tattooed local passionately talked me through all the latest in vaping technology and the pros and cons of each device in the glass display cabinet.
I invested in a sleek, turquoise contraption and over the next year I would enter into the cloud of sweet-smelling vapour of that shop at least once a fortnight to stock up on e-liquid.
Replacing the cigarettes with an E-cigarette. Source: dpa
Despite the alluring array of liquids on offer, (all with ridiculous names, along the lines of Banana Pirate or Pineapple Geisha) I would always opt for the most tobacco-like variety.
The E-Cigarette all but replaced the cigarette for me. But the problem was, I was sucking on that stick a lot more than I would ever have actually smoked. It became such a permanent feature that my boyfriend started nicknaming me Darth Vader.
And I was spending more than twice as much on the e-liquids than I had been previously spending on roll-up cigarettes (virtually the only cigarettes anyone smokes in Berlin). But the most absurd thing was that I was hooked on nicotine even more than ever.
The dizzying choice of e-liquid flavours. Source: dpa
After about a year, I eventually gave up the E-cigarette and returned to smoking roll-ups. But it wasn’t the same as before. The cigarettes started to hit my lungs harder and I felt even worse about myself after a night of several beers and countless cigarettes. And I kept getting colds. When I got my fourth cold in as many months at the end of May last year, I thought – it’s time to stop. The habit was causing more mental and physical discomfort than it was giving me pleasure.
So I stocked up on lollipops, chewing gums, boiled sweets and I stuck them in my mouth every time I thought about having a cigarette. For the first couple of weeks it was torturous. I steered clear of bars for that first fortnight, as I knew that enjoying a beer in a smoky environment would quadruple the difficulty of not lighting up.
I remember being in the smoking area of Ä bar in Neukölln last July with a group of around fifteen people. Everybody drunk, everybody smoking. I was digging my nails into the sofa in frustration trying to hold back the overwhelming tide of desire to light up a smoke and join in. But I didn’t. And despite how hard it was, when I saw the pale faces and heard the scratchy voices of my friends in my kitchen the next morning, I was very glad that I hadn’t smoked.
Although I still stank of it.
Seeing smoking culture through different eyes
After that it started to get it easier. I kept my motivation levels up by reading and watching documentaries which debunk the myths that smoking is pleasurable and expose the insidious tactics employed by big tobacco companies to brainwash us into thinking that smoking is cool, relaxing and sexy. A myth, I began to realise, which was and is still pervasive in Berlin.
The image of smoking gradually became less alluring. Source: dpa
I began to see the smoking culture in Berlin through different eyes. Instead of seeing it as a sign of an emancipated, liberal and free place, I started to see it as entrapment. If you ask any smoker if they would like to quit, even in Berlin, I guarantee you at least 90 percent will say yes. So why do they keep doing it? Because they are trapped, not only by the addiction, but by the illusion that if they stop smoking, they will be sacrificing something pleasurable.
It seems to me now that the whole city of Berlin is under this spell. It’s worried that if it stops allowing smoking in bars and clubs it will deprive its citizens of their freedom of choice. But this freedom is a myth.
After twelve months of quitting smoking, I am still at the beginning of my journey, but I can honestly say that I feel free. I have finally managed to shake off a dependency which made me feel guilty, dirty and sick, much more than it ever made me happy. If Berlin was to enforce the smoking ban more strictly, it wouldn’t be depriving its citizens of freedom, but helping them to claim it back.