“Budapest is a world-class city — a joy to behold…but you’ll have to dodge the second-hand smoke and ignore the millions of cigarette butts that are simply everywhere.”
Seventy percent, sixty percent, at least fifty-five percent, my students were calling out, one-by-one. “Thirty percent,” I said. My students smiled skeptically. “No way,” they said in near unison, doubting the statistic I presented, referring to the stat that 30% of Hungarians smoke. I had to agree with their skepticism. It does seem that nearly everyone here in Budapest smokes.
It’s early in the AM when I scoot down the old marble steps from our flat heading off to teach English in a local high school here. I pull open the heavy antique wooden door that leads to the street and my first contact with each Budapest morning is invariably a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke. Person after person, seemingly way more than half, are walking by me lit cigarette in hand. I am navigating through their smoke trails before having my second cup of coffee.
By all accounts, Budapest is on the rise. Secret be told, Budapest is a world-class city, far less expensive than Europe’s more well known tourist destinations like Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Prague. Graced by the Danube, awash in picturesque vistas, punctuated by historic buildings, the city is a joy to behold. But you’ll have to dodge the second-hand smoke and ignore the millions of cigarette butts that are simply everywhere.
Help me understand this, I implore my students. Like everything else about Hungary, it’s complicated.
In Japan, where over 21% of the population smokes, one rarely, if ever, sees a cigarette butt anywhere. In Japanese culture, largely influenced by its traditional belief system, Shinto, everything has a proper place, its right connection. From perfectly coiffed plants, to famously manicured rock gardens, nothing seems neglected, everything is where it should be. A cigarette butt belongs in its rightful place, hidden in some out-of-view trash container. From the surface, one could conclude, quite mistakenly, that few people in Japan smoke.
Back in Hungary, some people suggest that folks just expect someone else to clean up after them. Others will offer that smokers here are just slobs and lack pride in their city. Either way, it’s a huge turnoff for tourists who, out of necessity, have to dodge second-hand smoke and ignore trash bins overflowing with cigarette butts and public sidewalks strewn with these disgusting little things.
Smoking, of course, is an international problem. Few countries have escaped its wrath. 6.2 million people die worldwide each year from smoking, and another 1 million die from the effects of second-hand smoke. In Hungary, with a population of less than 10 million people, some 25,000 people die each year from smoking.
It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect that Hungarians will suddenly become Zen-like in their approach to cigarette smoking. But people can and do make surprising behavioral social-shifts when things become compelling enough. Witness the behavior of dog owners who follow their dogs around with little green poop bags. I routinely observe the people who ride public transport here and religiously keep their paid transport passes on their person. They know that transit officials ride those same buses and trams and regularly ask to see their tickets or risk getting handed an annoying fine.
Smoking is chill, my students tell me, adding that it reduces their stress. So, if you’re coming to Budapest, and please do come, get ready to dodge the smoke and ignore the ubiquitous butts. Much like the smoker who denies he’s addicted, sadly, people here don’t seem to think there’s much of a problem.