Tacked up on the courtyard walls, hanging next to the menu at the bar and of course taped above every classroom doorway are the laminated placards ubiquitous at Liceo Virgilio. VIETATO FUMARE is printed along the top of each accompanied by the universal anti-smoking symbol. A long list of penalties and other information is written below. Maybe it’s the hilarious specificity of the fines (27.50€ to 260.75€) never handed out or maybe the irony produced by hundreds of students smoking below them everyday, but these signs don’t create any of the fear they’re intended to. Many of the classes have even whited out several letters, changing VIETATO FUMARE (smoking illegal) to VIE’ A FUMA’ (Come to smoke, in Roman dialect). Given the reality of the situation, the revised version seems much more appropriate.
Until the British Doctors’ Study of 1951, there was no explicit evidence connecting tobacco to disease, in fact, smoking had been previously advertised as “healthy.” Unsurprisingly, this misconception led to the extreme popularity of cigarettes. Humphrey Bogart chain smoked on screens across the globe; Johann Cruyff smoked twenty cigarettes a day, even during his playing years at Ajax. However, once the relationship between tobacco and lung cancer was firmly established, cigarette use fell drastically in the United States. Today, smoking is a social stigma in America, for both its health repercussions and the discourtesy of forcing others to breathe in secondhand smoke. This is certainly not the case in Italy. The demand for cigarettes has barely dipped, and the scene at Liceo Virgilio seems to show that it only grows with each new generation.
Before classes start at eight in the morning, myriad students are already at the bar for their first dose of coffee and cigarettes for the day. Just outside the entrance of the school, not more than ten meters away, other students can be found sharing packs amongst themselves as well as meticulously checking in between the cobblestones of Via Giulia for partly unused butts. At 11, during the recreazione, a 20-minute schoolwide break, most students enjoy their second round of the day. At this point the courtyard and many of the bathrooms become unbearable for those not accustomed to tobacco smoke. There is a teacher on duty every day to monitor the courtyard for smokers during recreazione, but this chaperone is absolutely ineffective. It’s possible that he feels overwhelmed by the the daunting task of turning in half the student body; more likely, however, the reason why this teacher can almost always be found in ‘the smoking corner’ talking amicably with students or simply minding his own business, is because he is a sympathetic smoker himself. At times, some of these professors who feel overly dismayed by the dynamic will give their classes a lecture often climaxing with the repetition of the phrase, “Non é figo fumá!” (Smoking isn’t cool!). Still, after these discussions one can often find that same professor reaching to light a cigarette the moment he steps out of the classroom.