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Studying abroad? Then have a smoke

David Gumbiner '08 had never smoked a cigarette before he spent a semester in India, China and South Africa last spring. But while he was abroad, Gumbiner started to smoke bidis - small cigarettes popular in South Asia - with some participants in his program. Gumbiner said it became "part of our friendship to sit around and smoke."

But cigarettes lost much of their cultural appeal when Gumbiner returned to Providence - he said they were "more exciting in the developing world." Though he continued to smoke "one or two" a day throughout the summer - more than when he was abroad - he eventually quit in the fall.

Cigarettes are right next to escargots, siestas and new idioms on the list of things students try when they go abroad. But though a number of students start smoking casually while studying in foreign countries, few of them keep up the habit when they return - at least not for long.

Tommy Dahlberg '09 had smoked occasionally before he studied in Rio de Janeiro last spring, but he said his habits changed while he was abroad. Dahlberg smoked "casually" when he went out to bars in Brazil, "mostly because cigarettes were really cheap there," he said.

"It was drinking-induced, and it was something you do with other people," Dahlberg said, adding that he never bought a pack of cigarettes while he was there. "And nobody there gives you the stink-eye for smoking. It's more socially acceptable."

Dahlberg said smoking is still sometimes "appealing," but he has not smoked a cigarette since he returned to the United States.

Gumbiner said his continued smoking after his program helped him get through the jobless summer he spent taking classes he did not enjoy.

"Smoking was contemplative for me," he said. "When we would sit around and smoke, those were times of the day when we just sat back and thought about nothing. Cigarettes helped break up my day in that regard."

But Gumbiner said he never felt addicted, and he stopped when he "just didn't feel like smoking anymore."

It is not uncommon for a student who has never smoked to pick up the habit while abroad, said Kendall Brostuen, director of the Office of International Programs at Brown.

"It certainly can happen," he said, "and it certainly does happen."

The OIP provides site-specific orientations for Brown-sponsored programs, and Brostuen said some of these orientations address smoking in the context of cultural differences.

"As part of immersing yourself in a culture, students often find themselves questioning their own value systems," Brostuen said.

But he added that most students who start smoking abroad usually stop when they come back to the United States.

Students sometimes start smoking while abroad and plan to stop once they return, Naomi Ninneman, a health educator at the University, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. But these students should consider "whether they might be setting up a habit that will be very hard for them to quit," she wrote.

Ninneman added that our environment "certainly affects our behavior," and that studying in a country where smoking is the norm "can mean you will be more likely to pick up smoking yourself."

Zindzi McCormick '09, who studied in Lyons, France, last semester, said she did not feel any pressure to smoke. But she said smoking cigarettes "is like drinking coffee in France - it's just what you do."

France's recent bans on smoking in cafes, nightclubs and restaurants means the country is "not exactly the smoker's paradise it was before," said Allison Wright '08, who studied in Paris last spring.

Still, students studying there said smoking is still very much part of the culture. Christine Ronan '09, who is currently studying in Paris, wrote in an e-mail that none of her friends have picked up the habit. But she added that smoking has been "brought up as an idea a few times as something to help 'fit in better.'"

But for students like Gumbiner, smoking was more of a cultural experience than a way to fit in. Gumbiner said he actually felt guilty about smoking, as his program was a public health program focusing partly on the effects of smoking in China and the role of cigarette companies. He added that some of the students in his program looked down on his practices.

Still, Gumbiner said he did not regret the hours he spent smoking bidis with his friends.

"It was what it was," he said. "Going abroad is a lot about exploring parts of yourself you haven't looked at for a long time."

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