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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 January, 2004, 06:41 GMT
Kids celebrate smoky saint's day

By Suzanne Bush
BBC, in Capena

Simone is nine years old. On Saturday, in between playing football, sitting down for a big family lunch and watching a spot of television, he spent the day smoking, like almost all his friends and the rest of the town.

Children and adults light cigarettes from the fire
He is seven years too young to buy the cigarettes himself, but that is okay.

"My parents bought me some," he explains.

Nearby one mother is encouraging Agostino, her two-year-old, to take his first puff, but he does not seem very convinced.

Welcome to Capena, a small medieval town to the north of Rome which - on this day in the calendar - the anti-smoking message does not appear to have reached yet.

Every year, like many towns and villages across Italy, they light a bonfire as part of the festival of St Anthony, which is also celebrated with the blessing of animals to bring prosperity in the year ahead.

But unlike other places, once the fire is burning in the square, the town's inhabitants use it to light cigarettes.

The Italian Government may have fallen into line with many other countries around the world this month, introducing a tough new law banning smoking in bars and restaurants, but that did not stop the people of Capena.

I like smoking. I help out with mass, then I come here and my parents think it is okay because it is only one day a year
Tancredi, 10
As in previous years, the most eager participants were children, some as young as six.

Even the official brochure about the town talks of how characteristic it is to see everyone, "even the children" smoking throughout the day.

Rosalba has been coming from her village nearby for 11 years to take part and has photos of her children, Giulia,9, and Lorenzo,6, posing with cigarettes since they were one.

"They don't smoke properly," Rosalba explains.

"Then again, Giulia did just try inhaling and started choking," she laughs.

"But I'm not worried about them taking up smoking."


Nine-year-old Emanuel proudly announces that he doesn't smoke for St Anthony because it is bad for him.

The rest of his friends though, are very much into the tradition.

I am convinced that when children associate the souvenir of their first cigarette with having fun... these memories can lead a kid to repeat that behaviour
Raffaele Luise,
Italian Cancer League
"I like smoking," says 10-year-old Tancredi.

"I help out with mass, then I come here and my parents think it is okay because it is only one day a year."

It all began harmlessly enough in Capena, hundreds of years ago, with the smoking of rosemary.

Some remain faithful to that custom, but the majority now opt for cigarettes instead.

All this puts the Mayor of Capena, Riccardo Benigni, in a rather awkward position, as he is also the local doctor.

"It is not a good thing. This I can say as a doctor and a non-smoker. It is not that I like this new tradition. Of course, it's not a good example for anyone, but the origins were completely different."

Dangerous message

He says efforts are made to discourage children from taking part.

This year, for the first time, there was a sign by the fire, suggesting parents give their children sweets instead.

Indeed, some younger children were puffing away on candy cigarettes, but most just ignored the sign.

Possibly the most amazing aspect of the event is the fact that it appears to have passed unnoticed for all these years.

Even anti-smoking organisations have been blissfully unaware of it, but Raffaele Luise of the Italian Cancer League says it passes on a dangerous message to children.

"I am convinced that when children associate the souvenir of their first cigarette with having fun in a happy situation with the whole village and all their mates, these memories can lead a kid to repeat that behaviour."

Back in Capena, Simone and his friends finish their cigarettes and go off to play, but they will probably be back later.

It is only one day a year after all.

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