Too poor not to smoke

Romania: where half a million penniless folks throw away a decent part of their measly income on smokes. Poor smokers ditch more cash on tobacco than the well-off, find it harder to quit, with this expense pushing them from poverty to misery.

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“Life was really rough on me. I felt as though cigarettes helped me feel better”, Victora, an elderly woman from the village Pierșinari, tells me. She lives off her daughter’s handicap welfare, along with the attendant’s pension – all in all, 670 lei a month, with more than half of it being used to buy cigarettes.

Victora’s cheeks are sunken and her face is overshadowed by her eye bags. She meets me at her gate, carrying an axe in her hand, ready to crack some wood. She looks over 70, but she’s actually 58, 36 of which she’s smoked.

She started smoking when an older sister of hers died. A neighbor left her cigarettes, maybe it’ll help. “Up until then, I had no idea how to smoke. Sitting in my bed and thinking, crying, I just felt like puffing a cigarette. I was stunned and fell into the bed. Woooow, I’m gonna be sick. I then paused for a bit, the stun was gone and I smoked the other cigarette.”

She fell to depression once, feeling awful, she stopped eating and wouldn’t talk to anyone. She went to the hospital, they admitted her in and she quit smoking. She got around to it again when her brother died. The cigarette relaxed her; the pain seemed to be less diligent. She would smoke more than one pack a day.

“One time, I quit again, but then my father died and I haven’t stopped smoking since.” She sighs once more, reaches for the red pack of cigarettes in her pocket, grabs one, lights it up and gives it a looong puff.

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“Stress is a trigger for depression, anxiety – which explains why poor smokers find it harder to quit”, Ioana Podina, lecturer at the Psychology Faculty, tells me. Depression means absence of pleasure, and those with a host of problems will smoke more to extinguish the anguish.

“We’re all hedonistic, but poor folks have few ways to reach a sensation of high. I can’t go bowling, I can’t go to the movies, I can’t do a lot of stuff. The cigarette is handy.”

Cornelia is a housemaid; she cleans up my parents’ house once a week. She works other houses too, raking in 1400 lei a month, 420 of which she spends on smokes.

I find her in the kitchen, scrubbing the windows while listening to a reality show on TV called Bride for my son. “Mati, you got a smoke?” I don’t. But I think my mom left a pack in the cupboard, just in case. I find it and I hand her a cigarette.

Cornelia started smoking when she was 14, with her friends. “I would hide it from dad, ‘cause I was ashamed, but the girls would all come over at my place and we all started to smoke.” When he caught her smoking, her father told her he’ll provide her with money for smokes if she won’t puff away more than two packs a day.

Most people start smoking with their pals, with a cheer, but addiction sets in deeply only when the going gets rough.

“I went haywire with the smokes after my father died. There were days when I would remember him and smoke one and a half packs”, says Cornelia with disgust. “When I cry, I feel like putting the tears out with the cigarette. That’s when I smoke rougher cigarettes. They harden me more.”

She would throw the cigarettes to hell, she says, if only problems would cease to be. “If my daughter were to get a job somewhere, to be independent. That’s the agreement I would make with God. I’ll stop now, ‘cause I’m out of smokes.”

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Sociologist Dani Sandu says that one takes up smoking to be accepted within a gang, after which it becomes a part of them. “The more expelling the phenomenon is, the more it turns into an identity factor for smokers. It’s a powerful tool for defining oneself. At a given moment, it becomes a full-blown feature and one can no longer quit without a feeling of giving up on the group, on the habits one has come to develop.”

“If I do this constantly since I was 17 – it’s embedded into my personality. It’s a part of me”, says Adrian Schiop, an anthropologist who wrote a novel about an impossible romance, set in Ferentari.

He was worst off when he went to work in New Zealand, found himself out of a job and had to pick up cigarette butts from the pavement. “I was ashamed, but I was even more ashamed to ask for it. I had all sorts of techniques. I wound up with a job for the summer and people were going about barefoot, it was cool. And I would pick them up with my toes or I would just empty the ashtray. And with that tobacco I would put together nasty cigarettes.”

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«Come on, dude, the hospital put you back together and you’re already on their side?» That’s how Nicolae Pudilic’s friends reacted upon hearing that he quit. He quit when he got an ulcer to the stomach, but went right back at it with his friends “over a sip, ‘cause they didn’t recognize me anymore”.

Nicolae lives in a ramshackle, in a field with garbage and stray dogs. Eight people in two minuscule chambers with lots of beds, a freezer and a TV set. His family (himself, his wife and six children) lives off welfare – 564 lei a month, 250 of which is spent on cigarettes.

Besides trouble and entourage, Ioana Podină, psychologist, points out at another factor of addiction: hunger. “Nicotine is an appetite suppressor. This means one spends less on food… It’s sad.”

Cosmin (1 of 1)

Smoking can also be a statute symbol, “especially in the countryside, where there aren’t many ways for one to stand out”, says sociologist Dani Sandu. “The fact that you’re living in a community of relatively poor people and you can afford to smoke, even if your fridge is empty, emphasizes the sharpness of your deal.”

“I was obsessed with king Kents, but that was when I was good, dealin’ for myself”, recalls Cosmin Stancu, a tall, blue-eyed, peculiar-nosed man. “I would share it, people asked me and I gave them money to go and buy a pack of smokes.”

Cosmin had a job in Belgium at the time, he was a builder. He takes pride in his former fortitude, having bundles of cash, the whole of Pierșinari at his feet, and friends skinning him for money.

Nowadays he’s foraging the forest for wood from time to time. He speaks with half a spirit; I can barely make out what he’s saying. Misfortune struck him upon his return to Romania – he took a ride on a scooter, got himself into an accident and woke up a month later with a semi-paresis. He couldn’t even recall what city he was in when he crashed.

“When I was admitted, out of my own foolishness, I ingested 50 Diazepams. ‘Cause I said I hate life and I wanted to cut it short. I didn’t smoke for three, four days, while I was in a coma. After I came to, I overdid it with the cigarettes again. From grief.”

He’s been living ever since with only half his body functional and a 270 lei pension, out of which he smokes seven cigarettes a day.

His daughter is 14 and she wants to go to attend a sweet 18, “but she doesn’t understand that the days of having money are gone.” They got into a row over it and, out of spite, he went over his daily cigarette allowance. “If only we didn’t throw the money away on smokes, we would bring in more of what’s necessary around the house. But when you’re spiteful, you don’t think anymore.”

Psychologist Ioana Podină hints at me with an analogy: “There’s the expression: I’m too poor to dress poorly. I think it can be applied here as well: I’m too poor not to smoke. Economically speaking, it sounds like a paradox, right? I’m poor, I have this amount of money, I can barely use it to make ends meet and still, there goes half of it on cigarettes. I want to show that the pickle I’m in isn’t as sour as people think.”

schiop (1 of 1)

“In depression you just don’t care about yourself anymore, man. It’s something, it’s self-destructive. You know you ain’t gonna pull it off, it sucks. When your self-esteem is low… A poor man’s horse ain’t gonna pull, and neither will his dick. That’s depression, bro’. Whatever you do, you do for naught. There’s not a chance in sight”, says anthropologist Adrian Schiop. He has days that go with no food, no talk, but plenty of smokes. When life turns bleak, cigarettes are your last friend.


The biggest tobacco firm on the Romanian market, British American Tobacco, claims it has no products aimed at the poor. “We’re not offering them anything”, says Valentin Canură, corporate affairs manager.

Valentin and his boss, Adrian Popa, greeted me in their office near the House of the Free Press and explain to me why poor folks aren’t their problem – because they buy smuggled cigarettes, not from the shops. “In our portfolio there are no brands that speak to poor people. The difference between our most expensive cigarette, Dunhill, and our cheapest, Viceroy, is 2.5 lei.”

Someone else within the industry, who wished to keep a low profile, confirms that the difference between this cigarette and that are more akin to social stratification. “The money you spend is the same. But the cheap cigarettes are stuffed with cheap stuff, even if it doesn’t reduce production costs. It’s the psychological effect: the CEO is smoking Dunhill, he can’t be smoking the same stuff as the John Doe who works the plough.”

Adrian Popa, head of corporate and regulatory affairs, draws up squares on a blank piece of paper and introduces me, on a fatherly tone, to his dilemma on peasants: “Matei, I’m amazed. I’m a hunter; I get out a lot in the rural environment. Those beaters are people who’ll come in for a day, spend it in the woods, and go hau-hau-hau to drive the boars away. Twenty years ago they would show up, they would be much more obedient, and respected what they were being told. And they’d do it for the equivalent of 10 lei. Nowadays, no one’ll bother for less than 50. Everyone shows up, hau-hau-hau, chatting on their phones, filming, taking snapshots if there’s a fallen boar. You can see the poor folks, literally, in rags, but they have smartphones, they know how to use it, all of them. Many of them are smoking and I checked to see what exactly, good brands. I saw the packs too. They were smoking cigarettes. I was thinking, wait a minute, instead of coming here to go hau-hau-hau, dear Lord, you have work to do.”

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Valentin Canură agrees with his boss: “I once had a guy working my yard, he was complaining about money on a daily basis. He’d smoke one pack of Kent a day and drink three beers each day. Dude, everything you’ve earned today went on buying three beers and a pack of smokes. If I were you, I wouldn’t be drinking and I wouldn’t smoke. I sit here thinking fondly about smoking, but I’m spending that money on my child. I don’t know what happened, maybe they have no value system, I’ve no clue. How hard is it to do some simple math, to say, I’m strapped on cash, I can’t afford it? I don’t want to get all dramatic about it; I think it’s a social layer which deserves all the help it can get, granted, but in life you also help yourself.”

Psychiatrist Eugen Hriscu says that addiction is a “disease of irrationality”. The key to understanding these irrational decisions is the way people in disadvantaged milieus allocate their mental resources.

If a child sees their father beating his wife, the brain will consume its resources to emotionally cope with this trauma, resources which would normally be used on cognitive development.

Addiction affects one’s ability for long-term planning. When you’re itching for a cigarette, you choose to smoke and you forget about a possible long-term benefit. “If you want to get out of it, you need resources. Thus begins a struggle, but one cannot go to war with dwindling troops. Or, rather, one can, but they’ll almost definitely lose.”

With the rich people, it’s different. “If a mother promises her offspring that he’ll get a bicycle if he gets A’s in school, and it materializes, then the child becomes attuned to setting long-term objectives and behaving rationally. Which doesn’t happen when the parent gets home drunk and kicks your kid out of the house.”

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These deprivations scar the individual for life, says Valeriu Nicolae, a counselor on social policies for the Government: “An MRI scan on the brain of a three year-old who was raised in a warm environment, and one on the brain of a child who grew up in an impoverished one, differ a lot. The latter is reduced in size by 20%. It doesn’t grow. I’ve measured their weight, height, reading and mathematical abilities, and I was horrified. Those children are one or two years behind the international average. Both physically and mentally.”

The Government has the duty to help these people get out of the ill-fated context in which they were born. Not just for humanitarian reasons, but also commonsensical: it has every interest to have its citizens as healthy and productive as possible, in order for them to contribute to the budget.

Romanian politicians present the situation with the same terms used by British American Tobacco: an inexplicable personal choice. An assessment made by the UN in November 2015 concludes, however, that the authorities did not fulfill their duty, but have instead contributed to the social marginalization. 40% of Romanians are on the brink of poverty.

“I was often told poverty is a choice. It is, but the choice is often being made on a Government policies level, rather than being made by the people affected by poverty”, said Phillip Alstor, the UN rapporteur on poverty and human rights, upon arriving in Romania.

In theory, when a citizen can’t find work or is coping with other major issues, the state intervenes and gives him financial aid in order for them to get it together as soon as possible and become productive again. In Romanian practice, social welfare is being used as a political control tool, ending up, in many cases, behaving like a drug instead of an emergency resource.

Some of this money is spent on cigarettes and returns to the state’s budget through taxes, leaving a cancerous trail in the poor man’s lungs, a little something for the tobacco industry and some gratuity for the smugglers.

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When the Government raised the price for cigarettes, it hoped that the number of smokers would plummet, especially among the poor, and “out of the money taken from those who don’t look after their health we’ll run prevention programs”, as former health minister Eugen Nicolaescu, who introduced the taxes in 2006, told me.

The numbers did drop, sort of, between 2006 and 2014, from 31 to 27% of citizens aged over 15. 12% of Romanians with basic education smoke daily, as opposed to 20% of those with medium and higher education. The poor are less inclined to smoke, but those who do smoke (roughly half a million, according to our calculations) spend more money on cigarettes and find it harder to quit.

Which is to say that the ever-higher taxes didn’t quite convince those who are destitute, but merely doubled their expense.

The taxes brought in huge sums of money in the state budget, but only a minuscule fraction of it was used for prevention programs, which was the actual stated purpose of the law. In 2013, the state raked in 339 million lei out of taxes and allocated just 200.000 for the National Smoking Renunciation Center, which amounts to just 0.06 of the whole sum.


Psychologist Ioana Podină believes an efficient platform for cutting back on smoking should involve getting out there and making human contact, something the students and alumni of the Faculty of Psychology would only be too happy to volunteer for. “It’s a good exercise and it’s fairly straight-forward for a psychology student.”

The more successful smoking-curbing platforms are at least ten years in the running and pile up multiple strategies: emotional testimonials from smokers who saw their lives wrecked by their vice, live concerts, sporting events, messages which tell you why you should quit, not how to do it (these had a significant impact on those with low income), TV ads and psychological counseling. One other thing this study reveals is that all people, regardless of income, ethnicity or religion are influenced by messages such as “your child will grow up without a parent if you’ll keep on smoking”.

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“You don’t quit because you’re short on cash. The poorest of the poor can get ahold of money for cigarettes”, says Adrian Schiop. “If I run out of money, there’s this real shitty kind of unprocessed tobacco. With one hundred lei, I’ll get myself a whole kilo of that and still make ends meet. It’s shady – I would go to the pub, light one up and everybody’d think it’s drugs.

Cool, bro, if you say it’s drugs, drugs it is.

I, for one, say it’s poverty.”


Reporter: Matei Bărbulescu
Editor: Vlad Ursulean
Illustration: Giorge Roman
Translation: Victor Bitiușcă
Fixer: Ștefania Matache

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