A Lesson on Smoking

***As of Wednesday, July 15th, I’m back in the USA! I’ll be posting about my last couple days in Bulgaria soon, but first wanted to tell you about what I thought was a very important, albeit uncomfortable, lesson.***

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous teaching this particular lesson. That’s because I knew the topic would likely ruffle some feathers and would almost certainly make some of my students uncomfortable.

“Okay class, some of you aren’t going to like this lesson very much,” I said as I scrawled in big block letters on the white board: S-M-O-K-I-N-G.

To give you a bit of background, one of my first observations in Bulgaria was that smoking is widespread, especially when compared to the U.S. Any time I went to a concert or bar in Bulgaria, I’d come home smelling like smoke. While I didn’t let this bother me (I knew I was in a different country, after all, and wouldn’t expect people not to smoke for me), I was disappointed to see many of my students smoking between classes or after school. In my mind, they were simply too young to be making decisions that could cause addiction and have a long-lasting impact on their health. Because of this, I felt smoking was an important topic to discuss.

When I turned around from the whiteboard, I could tell that I already had the class’s attention.

“Before we get started, I do want to say that I completely respect each individual’s right to make decisions about his or her own body…BUT I also think it’s important to have all the necessary information before making such decisions. Additionally, while I personally am not a smoker, I have plenty of great friends who are, and that’s okay. I don’t think any less of someone who decides to smoke.”

“To get started, let’s make a list up on the board. Why do people smoke?”


“To fit in.”

“Because they are curious.”

I had to write furiously to keep up as the answers came quickly. “Okay, great start. What else?”

“It’s cool.”

“To help them relax.”

“Because everybody else is.”

“Okay, good,” I said. “We’ve got a good list going now. Can you think of anything else?”

“To lose weight.”


Once we completed our brainstorm, I played the following video for the class. I asked them to pay careful attention to some of the negative health effects smoking can have. Even though the video was not in English, I thought it was pretty powerful and a great source for discussion.

“Alright, who can tell me what happened in the video?” After a couple of students did a nice job explaining what they had watched, I asked them to shout out some of the negative health impacts mentioned in the video.

“Cigarettes contain insecticide.”

“Smoking can make you look older.”

“You might die faster. They ask the kids if they’d rather live and play.”

“Lung cancer, emphysema, and strokes.”

Once we’d covered some of the drawbacks mentioned in the video, we further substantiated our list. Things like “yellowing of the teeth and skin,”high blood pressure,” and “pregnancy risks” all made the list. I then passed out statistics I had pulled from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

But before looking at the numbers, we had a brief conversation about the aforementioned sources of that information. I wanted to let my students know that these weren’t numbers I got from smokingsucks.com, but rather were well-researched and documented facts. I divided the students into groups of 4 or 5, and then had each group present 2-3 things that they found interesting or worrisome. From the data, my students shared that smoking:

  • increases the risk of developing lung cancer by 25 times for men and 25.7 times for women
  • increases the risk of stroke and coronary heart disease 2 to 4 times
  • can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body (bladder, blood, cervix, colon, esophagus, kidney, liver, pancreas, and stomach, just to name a few)
  • affects bone health
  • is a cause of type 2 diabetes
  • increase he risk of developing lung cancer by about 23 times among men and about 13 times higher among women when compared with non-smokers

I also felt compelled to share some of the anti-smoking advertisements that I saw growing up. While they are somewhat graphic, I think they can be effective in making kids think twice before smoking. The fact that I still remembered these campaigns is proof that they worked on me!

At several points during the lesson, I made sure to emphasize that smoking does not mean that one or all of these things will necessarily happen to you. Instead, it means that chances for some of these health ailments will increase. “You’re playing a numbers game, in a way,” I said.

Looking at the whiteboard now, we had a list of reasons people smoke on the lefthand side and a list of health impacts smoking can have on the righthand side. “This,” I said, gesturing to the board, “is the decision that every person has to make. Now while I personally chose not to smoke based on some of these health implications, plenty of other people decide to smoke, and that’s okay.”

Moving on, Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union, meaning many families are hurting financially. Knowing this, I thought a financial argument against smoking might be a good exercise as well. “How much does a pack of cigarettes cost in Bulgaria?,” I asked.

“Five leva.”

“Okay, good. And how many cigarettes come in a pack?”


“Alright, and how many cigarettes would you estimate that the average Bulgarian smokes per day?”

My students started shouting out their guesses, which ranged from 10 to 40. For the purpose of this exercise, I went with 20 cigarettes (one pack) per day.

“Okay, so one pack per day times 365 days per year is 365 packs per year” (Brilliant, huh?).

“Multiply that by 5 leva per pack,” I said while writing the multiplication problem up on the board, “and we’re looking at 1,825 leva per year.” Knowing that my students are approaching driving age, I then followed up with, “and how much would you guess a used car costs in Silistra?”

The answers came back slowly as the realization dawned on my kids.

“Probably around 1,500 leva.”

“You can get a cheap one for 1,000!”

“No more than 2,000 leva.”

“So you’re telling me that if a smoker decides to quit smoking, he or she could afford a used car in about a year with money that would have been spent on cigarettes?”


“And for all those of you who have told me you want to travel, but can’t afford it…keep these figures in mind as you make your decision whether or not to smoke.”

The last message I wanted to leave with my students was that Bulgaria isn’t exactly “normal” when it comes to smoking. I asked where they thought Bulgaria ranked in terms of per capita cigarette consumption per year, and they were shocked to learn that Bulgarian adults smoke more cigarettes per year than adults in any other country besides Greece and Serbia. I wanted them to realize that while smoking might be the norm in Bulgaria, it isn’t in many other parts of the world.

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 3.08.29 PM

While I don’t think this lesson alone will flip how my students think about smoking upside down, I hope it will at least make them think twice about the health and financial implications of smoking. I was impressed with my students’ maturity, as we discussed what could have been a contentious topic.

2 thoughts on “A Lesson on Smoking

  1. An excellent article and an excellent effort to have the students give some concerted thought to what they are doing. Anecdotally, my observation is that it is more and more acceptable not to smoke, and peer pressure in this area has declined. But facts are facts – Bulgaria’s tobacco problems are deep and wide and problematic. “Balkan Smoke: Tobacco and the Making of Modern Bulgaria” by Mary Neuburger thoroughly explores the roots of the problem and the importance of the tobacco trade in the nation’s economic structure from its earliest years of autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. Thank goodness the government now has some mandatory no smoking laws in place so that you can go to many offices and restaurants without feeling you are being immersed in an ashtray!


    • Thanks for your insightful comment! I’m glad to hear that you’ve observed a decrease in peer pressure and youth smoking. Admittedly, I’ve only had a small snap shot in my year in Bulgaria, and my main comparison is the U.S., a country which has had quite an anti-smoking campaign the last few decades. Hopefully these lessons at least empowered kids with enough information to make the right decision for them!


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