Cool for Cats. Cruel to Cats? A History of Italian Smoking

 

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In 1971 a bizarre, vanity-published memoir about a cigarette-smoking cat, Jolly il gatto che fuma, appeared in Italy. The author, a cafe-impresario called Alfredo Cliento, had trained Jolly to “smoke” Lucky Strike and other US brands while leaping onto the floor from an espresso machine. That was in the 1960s. Jolly’s story would these days outrage the anti-smoking lobby as well as animal rights activists.

 

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The cigarettes used in the circus turn were not even filter-tipped, but low-end, high-tar American smokes generically known in Italy as “le americane”. In the Italian mind, American cigarettes suggested urbanity, modernity and, not least, wealth. If Lucky Strikes were cool enough for cats, they were cool enough for post-war Italy.

 

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Carl Ipsen, Professor of History at Indiana University, has written an absorbing social history of modern Italy as seen through the nation’s smoking habits. The book, Fumo, published by Stanford University Press, is designed to look like a cigarette packet.

 

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By Ipsen’s reckoning the Italians are a “risk-averse” people, who were reluctant to implement anti-smoking laws, and even more reluctant to wear seat belts. The nation’s “scofflaw population”, as Ipsen refers to it, took its time to see the potential harm done by smoking. In 1966, the Italian pop singer Mina Mazzini equated smoking with manlinnes.  “If a man smells of smoke, yes, he is truly a man”, she crooned in her hit ‘Fumo blu’ (Blue Smoke). Rarely has smoking had such a glamorous advocate as Mina. A dyed blonde diva in the Dusty Springfield mould, she dominated the Italian charts in the 1960s and early 1970s with her smoky nightclub anthems of extra-marital love and heartbreak. Only in later years would she concede that cigarettes might be harmful. (“The kids send me out on the balcony”, she told a Turin newspaper in 2003.)

 

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Much of Carl Ipsen’s diverting, well-researched book discusses the role of cigarettes in Italian literature. The illusion of nicotine-induced euphoria was unforgettably evoked by Trieste’s most famous writer, Italo Svevo, in his sour-sweet 1923 novel, Zeno’s Conscience, which chronicles a Triestine businessman’s doomed attempts to kick a pathological smoking habit. Austrian by citizenship but Italian by cultural preference, Svevo was himself a whole casebook of neuroses: the Svevo Museum in Trieste displays promissory notes from him to his long-suffering wife Livia to give up his 40-a-day cigarette habit. Ironically Svevo died as a consequence not of smoking but of a car crash. Denied a final puff of tobacco on his hospital bed he sighed: “That really would have been the last cigarette.” In a sad (but rather Svevo-ish joke) the author’s chauffeur had rammed the car against a tree.

 

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By the time Svevo died in 1928, Fascism was well-established in Italy. Smoking ran counter to the Black Shirt ideal of rugged, bare-chested manliness, Ipsen argues. Mussolini (who, like Hitler, was a preachy non-smoker) despaired of making Fascists out of a nation more devoted to Mickey Mouse and Lucky Strikes than giving the stiff-armed Roman salute. By the mid-1930s, however, Black Shirt-themed cigarettes had begun to reach Italian troops stationed in Fascist-conquered Abyssinia (later, Ethiopia). The ‘Me ne frego’ brand reflected the risk-taking and menefreghismo (couldn’t-give-a-damn attitude) of many Italian smokers at this time. A war was on: life was too short to worry about death by cigarette.

 

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The “golden age” of Italian smoking from the late 1960s to the early 1980s coincided with a consumer boom of Coca-Cola, chewing gum, jeans and other trappings of American-style “cool”. In Southern Italy, especially, supplies of Camel, Lucky Strike and Chesterfield (Humphrey Bogart’s favourite) were often unloaded from cargo boats anchored in the Bay of Naples.

 

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By the late 1970s, some 300,000 inhabitants of Naples were estimated to live off the sale of contraband smokes. The market was controlled by the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia), who used speedboats, couriers and corrupted police for their purpose. In 1969, partly in an attempt to put the contrabbandisti out of business, the Italian state introduced a new cigarette called MS, after Monopolio di Stato (state monopoly). Packaged in white, gold, black and red designs, MS cigarettes were marketed as an “elegant” alternative to the proletariat, unfiltered Nazionali, which were liable to fall apart if not combust. Socially aspirant Italians rejected the throat-scorching Nazionali in favour of MS, which rapidly became the nation’s most popular brand. Referred to jokingly as morte sicura, “certain death”, MS lacked the nicotinous bite of Gauloise but their light (or “blond”) American tobacco blends were, for me at least, a smoker’s delight.

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