- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

CAPENA, Italy — Yesterday was light-up time in Capena, a medieval town where everybody smokes on St. Anthony’s Day. Nobody remembers why, but nearly everybody does it — even children as young as 2 years old.

For years, the event has gone unnoticed by public-health advocates, who just this month succeeded in getting the Italian government to order bars and restaurants to ban smoking or to allow it only in well-ventilated smoking areas.

Hundreds gathered under gray skies to light cigarettes from the trunk of an olive tree set ablaze in the town square.

One mother, who gave her name only as Rosalba, said she has been participating in the festival for 11 years and has taken photos of her children posing with cigarettes since they were 1. Her eldest, Giulia, is 9.

“They don’t smoke properly,” Rosalba said, chuckling. “Then again, Giulia did just try inhaling and started choking. … It’s a lovely thing. I’m not worried about them taking up smoking. It’s only for one day, and they know it’s bad for them.”

Rosalba’s friend, Katia, encouraged her son, Augustino, to take his first puff, but the 2-year-old seemed unenthusiastic.

Although the youngest children were accompanied by parents, many older children smoked all day without supervision.

“I like smoking,” said 10-year-old Tancredi. “I help out with Mass, then I come here, and my parents think it’s OK because it’s only one day a year.”

The festival of St. Anthony usually is celebrated across Italy with the traditional blessing of animals to bring prosperity in the year ahead. Capena’s unusual custom began centuries ago with the smoking of rosemary.

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

The tradition is awkward for Mayor Riccardo Benigni, who also is the town doctor.

“It’s not a good thing. This I can say as a doctor and a nonsmoker. It’s not that I like this new tradition. Of course, it’s not a good example for anyone, but the origins were completely different.”

Mr. Benigni says he has tried to discourage children from taking part and, for the first time this year, there was a sign suggesting parents give their children sweets instead. But only a few of the smaller children chose candy cigarettes over the coffin nails.

Raffaele Luise of the Italian Cancer League was appalled by the practice.

“I’m 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 behavior.”

Most Italian adults seem oblivious to the effects of smoking on their children. Despite a 30-year-old ban, it’s not unusual to see Italians smoking in schools and hospitals.

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