Opinion | Smoking bans and socially incompetent Danes

September 6th, 2012

This article is more than 12 years old.

There is something very Danish yet something very un-Danish about the increasing regulation of smoking and the way smokers are allowed to live their lives.

It is possible to find other Western countries that have far stricter rules than we do in Denmark. And Denmark will never be accused of being a first-mover when it comes to smoking laws. In fact, Danes have long remained critical of such restrictions on smokers’ personal freedom. As late as 2002, a majority was against any restrictions. But by 2004, the picture had changed, and in 2005 the first laws banning smoking were passed.

The reason is that, in Denmark, we have a history of not getting on people’s cases for their bad little habits. This same liberal attitude towards personal choice can also be seen in people’s view of homosexuality, abortion or other ‘personal’ issues, which in other countries are sources of controversy. Seen in that respect, smoking bans are un-Danish.

Yet they are also quintessentially Danish, as Danes generally trust that the state has their best interests in mind. We trust more in public institutions (and each other) than any other nationality. We trust that laws are created for the benefit of society as a whole – not for the benefit of individual groups. When regulations are created we follow them to the letter of the law. Many a foreigner has been astounded by Danes’ habit of waiting for the signal before crossing the road, even though there isn’t a car in sight.

Smoking bans fall into the gap between these two attitudes, which might explain why they have been so hard to enforce – despite the lack of resistance when they were implemented. We supported the first smoking ban, which was intended to protect people from second-hand smoke, but at the same time we didn’t want people to tell us how we should live our lives. What made it possible to accept the ban was that it was packaged as a way to protect people at work. None of us want to do anything that would inadvertently affect the health of hotel or café employees. They should also have good working conditions. In Denmark, we take care of each other.

But with the latest round of smoking restrictions the intent of the law has changed. Banning smoking at schools has nothing to do with protecting people from second-hand smoke. Neither do the new regulations in Aarhus that ban all public employees from smoking during work hours (even if they are by themselves). In a classic example of laws being used to protect people from themselves, the state is starting to get involved in our private lives.

Danes, though, don’t want the state to tell us what to do. Danes make a clear delineation between their private lives and their public lives. Just as we rarely have contact with our co-workers outside of work, we view our private lives as being off limits to public officials. We’re happy to be left alone and we don’t take kindly to disruptions.

As I see it, this social isolation is, in fact, one of the reasons why smoking bans were able to garner so much support – provided they stuck to regulating second-hand smoke. Smoking laws confirmed our need to be cut off from each other.

The first round of smoking laws affected the way we interact with one another. Danes are only too happy to accept such laws, since it means we don’t have to deal with other people.

Danes are experts at staying out of each other’s way. Foreigners typically describe Danes as standoffish and reserved. We’re difficult to make friends with because we rarely approach others. New people need to make an active effort to break through our wall of reservation if they want to join the group.

One could also venture the theory that each time we regulate an aspect of people’s personal lives, we make people less dependent on each other. Who needs friends and family when we have a social security system that cares for even the most asocial, isolated and friendless people out there? By guaranteeing the state will be there, people have little incentive to create a network or meet people.

Without such an incentive, we can gradually distance ourselves from each other and rely on rules and regulations whenever we find ourselves in the situation of having to deal with other people. Or, as Torben Steno put it in his recent book about Danes’ lack of manners, Danes have nothing to dispute when they find themselves at odds with each other. We don’t haggle much, we don’t leave tips, and we don’t ask anything of people unless it’s their job to give us something. It’s that mind-set that prevents Danes from walking up to someone and asking them to put out their cigarette. Now, though, we’re armed with laws that allow us to accomplish what we want, while at the same time entirely avoiding the social interaction we fear so much.

The consequence of out-sourcing our social rule to the powers that be is that it has become even more difficult for us to talk to each other. This might also be the reason behind the increasing number of violent incidents between drivers or people ringing the police to complain about a neighbour before going next door to talk about it first. Have we forgotten how to talk about things in a civil manner without first having the state on our side?

As I see it, smoking laws to protect others against second-hand smoke only make Danes more dysfunctional than they already are. Ironically, that’s why Danes welcomed them. The new smoking laws stand to face more resistance, since they go against our practice of accepting that people have a right to make their own choices – even if those choices might hurt them.

Dennis Nørmark is an anthropologist, author and lead consultant for the Living Institute.



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