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Spain has undergone extraordinary changes over the past half century, metamorphosing from a dictatorship governing a mainly peasant society to a thriving democracy whose economy ranges from tourism to heavy engineering, agriculture to aerospace. In a country with such a long and illustrious history, a fount of culture over many centuries, and which was at one time a colonial superpower governing most of Latin America, tradition is bound to be strong. And while progress often demands compromise and change where traditions are concerned, one area of tradition that remains remarkably intact is tobacco.
Not only does Spain persist in maintaining its status as one of the black spots of Europe in terms of tobacco consumption and disease, but the stuff is still apparently an unquestioned part of the social fabric, too. A health advocate from the UK recently described her astonishment at the wedding of a young Spanish woman who was all too well educated about tobacco: her father did not live to see his daughter married, having smoked all his adult life and died of lung cancer at the age of 50.
But at the celebratory wedding meal, what was in the traditional baskets of personalised gifts brought round from table to table by the happy couple, and handed to all the guests? Boxes, beautifully hand decorated with hearts and flowers and the names of the bride and groom, containing cigarettes for all the women, and cigars for the men. So much is tobacco a part of Spanish wedding tradition that cigarette gift boxes ready for decoration are to be found in the country's specialist wedding shops. No wonder public health has such an uphill struggle when it is battling not only against tobacco companies, addiction, ineffective politicians, and incomplete public understanding of the problem, but such deeply ingrained tradition, too.