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Last Updated: Friday, 14 January 2005, 13:53 GMT
Italy stubs out unhealthy tradition
By Suzanne Bush
Capena, Italy

This Sunday, like every Sunday closest to 17 January, is an important day for the small medieval town of Capena, to the north of Rome.

An old man puffs a cigar in the town of Capena (photo: Emanuele Brai)
The rites of the festival are believed to have roots in pagan ritual

It is the day when animals are taken along to be blessed by the local priest.

It is also the day when the town's inhabitants, from the old to the surprisingly young, gather around a bonfire in the square outside the church to light and smoke cigarettes.

The Festival of Saint Anthony is celebrated in towns and villages across Italy.

But in Capena, for hundreds of years, it has been marked with the smoking of rosemary in pipes, and lately, with cigarettes.

Many of the participants are the eight or even six-year-olds who revel in the chance to smoke for one day a year.

Some parents even bring their children in from neighbouring villages every year to join in the tradition.

Returning to roots

But this is January 2005, and even Italy, where it is not unusual to see doctors smoking in hospitals and pupils lighting up in school corridors, has moved with the times by introducing a harsh new law banning smoking in public places, including bars and restaurants.

The new law that came into force on 10 January, coupled with the media attention that the town's festival got last year, has prompted Capena's mayor - and doctor - Riccardo Benigni, to take action in an effort to clean up its act.

It's a festival. People go. Okay, put warnings up, but the important thing is to develop a project which will hopefully last for years
Dr Giacomo Mangiaracina

This year the bonfire will be surrounded by posters with hard-hitting slogans like the 'Smoking kills' warning on cigarette packets.

Last year, for the first time, there was a sign suggesting parents give their children cigarette-shaped sweets, which the more health-conscious parents already do, but this was largely ignored.

Local police officers attending the event also stood and watched as children puffed away, but this year Dr Benigni says they will stop children from lighting up.

Rosemary smoke

The most effective strategy, however, is likely to be the big effort to return to the roots of the smoking tradition.

"We have decided to get lots of bamboo pipes made, with rosemary, so that, as in the past, rosemary will be put in and smoked as a good luck tradition which probably has a pagan origin, linked to fertility, both human and of the land, the animals and so on," says Dr Benigni.

But it won't end there.

As a non-smoker who lost both his parents to smoking-related diseases, Dr Benigni is well aware that a longer-term approach is needed.

He has therefore drafted in one of Italy's leading anti-smoking campaigners, Dr Giacomo Mangiaracina, president of the Italian Society for the study of the effects of tobacco, to help.

And so, just days before the festival rolls around again, they have convened staff from local schools, council members, the head of the local health authority, the councillor in charge of health services for the Lazio Region, smoking experts and the mayors of all the neighbouring villages to launch a new initiative.

Hot issue

This will include training local teachers to tutor their pupils on the dangers of smoking, and setting up an information desk and help group in the town to support those who want to kick the habit.

Enjoying a smoke in the town of Capena (photo: Emanuele Brai)
Smokers light their cigarettes from the town's bonfire
"What can you do on that one day?" asks Dr Mangiaracina.

"It's a festival. People go. Okay, put warnings up, but the important thing is to develop a project which will hopefully last for years, taking place every year in the schools and the community.

"Public attention is greater than the last year and this will surely contribute," he adds.

So will they manage to stamp out this unhealthy tradition?

Smoking is a hot issue at the moment, with smokers complaining about their rights, but experts are convinced the ban will lead to an overall decline in smoking in Italy.

Dr Mangiaracina believes that if it is ever to work in Capena, now is the time.

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