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Second-Hand Smoke, GMOs, and Europe

Thomas Friedman begins a recent column on the situation in the Middle East with the following anecdote:

Last week I went to lunch at the Hotel Schweizerhof in Davos, Switzerland, and discovered why America and Europe are at odds. At the bottom of the lunch menu was a list of the countries that the lamb, beef and chicken came from. But next to the meat imported from the U.S. was a tiny asterisk, which warned that it might contain genetically modified organisms -- G.M.O.'s.

My initial patriotic instinct was to order the U.S. beef and ask for it "tartare," just for spite. But then I and my lunch guest just looked at each other and had a good laugh. How quaint! we said. Europeans, out of some romantic rebellion against America and high technology, were shunning U.S.-grown food containing G.M.O.'s -- even though there is no scientific evidence that these are harmful. But practically everywhere we went in Davos, Europeans were smoking cigarettes -- with their meals, coffee or conversation -- even though there is indisputable scientific evidence that smoking can kill you. In fact, I got enough secondhand smoke just dining in Europe last week to make me want to have a chest X-ray.

I imagine that a European might respond by saying something like, "You can choose not to smoke, and you can choose to walk away from smokers, but if you don't know that your food contains GMOs, you have no choice to make." True, but Friedman's basic point is still right: there's no scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful, and yet Europeans are making a big fuss over them while continuing to smoke like fiends, indoors and out.

In the early 1990s, while serving as the original product manager for Adobe Acrobat, I went on pre-launch press tour across Europe. Except in the UK, where technology journalists expected one-on-one interviews, each day's schedule would be the same:

  1. Wake up, shower, and pack.
  2. Check out of hotel.
  3. Meet in hotel conference room to set up demo machines.
  4. Brief all area journalists at once.
  5. Dine with journalists at hotel restaurant.
  6. Catch taxi to airport.
  7. Fly to next city.
  8. Check into hotel.
  9. Meet colleagues for dinner.
  10. Catch up on work, work out, or just go to sleep.
The problem was that during activities 4, 5, 7, and 9 (and 6, depending on the taxi driver), we were inescapably exposed to cigarette smoke -- especially during the briefings, which were typically held in small, poorly ventilated rooms. Most of the journalists we met smoked, and many did so more or less continuously. By the end of the two-and-a-half week tour, I was absolutely miserable.

It has been a while since I've done a press tour in Europe, so I wasn't sure if things had changed in the meantime. Apparently they haven't.


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