July 24, 2023

Smoking, Travel, and Culture Shock

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

As a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, I remember waiting to be seated at a restaurant. There were occasionally vending machines for candy, gum, and even cigarettes in the waiting area. While cigarette vending machines were apparently only banned in 2010 (except in adults-only venues), I don’t remember seeing a single machine for decades.

That is, until I visited Germany recently. We stayed in an apartment-style hotel, run by someone who also operated a bar on the first floor. When we stepped in the bar to check in, I noticed a cigarette vending machine. Oh wow, I thought, hadn’t seen one of those in years! But it was in a bar, after all, and I didn’t think much of it.

But I would soon discover that these vending machines were everywhere. While walking along this beautiful fussweg (footpath) in a small Bavarian village, we came upon another cigarette vending machine.Fussweg bavaria germany

Cigarette vending machine 1The machine seemed so out of place in a space designated for biking and walking. The translation of the words at the top (neu, einfach, schnell, sicher) also struck me as odd: new, easy, fast, safe!?!

Soon I got used to seeing these machines pretty much everywhere in cities and small towns. They might be attached to buildings, fences, or walls. The price of a package from the vending machines pictured above ranged from about 8-10 euros, or about $9-$11, similar to the cost of cigarettes in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, we saw lots of smokers, many more that we are accustomed to seeing at home in California.

Smoking is more common in Germany than in the U.S.; according to World Population Review, about 28 percent of German adults smoke, compared with about 12 percent in the U.S. Young people are among the least likely to smoke in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Just 5.3 percent of 18-25-year-olds smoked in 2018 in the U.S., compared with about 18 percent of 15-24-year-olds in Germany in 2019.

The impact of can be seen in deaths by lung cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, the lung cancer death rate in the U.S. was about 31.8 per 100,000, and about 48.0 per 100,000 in Germany according to Eurostat.

My experience as an American who is seldom exposed to smoking has a lot to with where I live. In California, approximately 11 percent of adults smoke; but West Virginia has the highest rate at 25.2 percent, according to the CDC. The CDC reports that some states have more than triple the death rate from lung cancer than those with the lowest death rates. Kentucky’s death rate, for instance, is 53.5 per 100,000, compared with Utah’s 16.4 per 100,000.

While there are likely many reasons for this wide gap, Kentucky has a long history of tobacco production and Utah is majority Mormon, a religious group that prohibits smoking. CDC data from 2018 indicate that 23.4 percent of adults in Kentucky smoked, compared to just 9 percent of adults in Utah.

According to the CDC, smoking in the U.S. is related to educational attainment; those with a graduate degree are least likely to smoke (3.2 percent), while those with a GED are about ten times more likely to smoke (30.7 percent). Those with lower incomes are also more likely to smoke.

As we left for the U.S., we had one last reminder of the centrality of smoking. We passed several smoking lounges like this one in the Munich airport: not outside on patios but inside the building. This one and others like it were packed with smokers.

Camel smoking loungeI don’t have any friends or family members who smoke, so seeing all of the smokers and ease of obtaining cigarettes was a bit of a culture shock. I work on a smoke-free campus, where smoking is prohibited in all buildings and even outside while on campus. I live in a state where smoking has been banned indoors for about 25 years, and most public parks and beaches do not allow smoking.

Travel can help us learn about and appreciate lifestyles and customs different from our own, but this was one aspect of our vacation that made me appreciate going home.

Photos courtesy of the author


After reading this article, I can see why the death rate of lung cancer is high in Germany compared to the U.S. It is higher because cigarettes are much more accessible and much more advertised in Germany. I can apply sociology because the people in the U.S. developed and banned cigarette vending machines so they were not as accessible and the percentage of deaths from lung cancer went down. This article is different from the news because she talks about her own real-life experiences.

The article I read shed light on the culture shock one may face upon encountering cigarette vending machines. As an American, it's not something you would typically come across outside of a store, although casinos do sell cigarettes through vending machines, albeit at a steep price. However, it's important to acknowledge that different countries have different practices. It's not surprising that Germany has a higher death rate from lung cancer compared to the US, considering the prevalence of cigarette vending machines. This scenario highlights the application of sociology in understanding how cultural differences impact the sale and consumption of cigarettes. What I found interesting about this article is that it's a personal experience shared by the author, as opposed to something you'd typically see on the news, which can be quite sensationalized.

Your article was a very interesting read with a bit of nostalgia mixed in. I can recall the last time I saw a cigarette vending machine was inside of a Horse Racetrack, and since then, I haven't seen one again in or near my hometown. It's a reminder of how something as simple as seeing cigarette vending machines can highlight such significant cultural gaps. It also made me think about how traveling exposes us to different ways of life and influences our perspectives. Overall, it was interesting to learn how smoking norms can vary depending on where you are in the world.

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