Like I mentioned yesterday on the Facebook page I've decided to dig a little bit into the story of tobacco in Iceland, specifically because this photo is of the display window of our local smoke shop, Tóbaksverslunin Björk on Bankastræti. I'm going to guess that all of you who've visited Reykjavik have passed by this store, which is just a few houses up the street from the restaurant I wrote about in November. It's been there for as long as I can remember, with the same friendly and slightly eccentric man behind the counter, Sölvi Óskarsson.
He recently sold the shop, but not before raising a bit of hell. After a four-year long battle with the government (which holds the sole license to import all tobacco products, as well as alcohol) over a law passed in 2002 which demanded that all tobacco for sale must be kept out of consumers' sight, an exception was made in 2006 for his shop, based on the fact that the majority of his livelihood depends on the sale of that specific product. I know personally that he's had other issues with the monopoly on booze and smokes as I've heard his (very justified) rants on why specialty tobaccos brands, Nat Sherman for example, which produce higher grade, higher quality non-chemically treated cigars and cigarettes (there are no additives in the tobacco, paper or filters) are not available in his store: they are not allowed to be imported and sold in Iceland, though much more toxic and probably deadly corporate brands (you know their names...) are.
The monopoly is of course nothing new. The Danes held the reins on import and trade for two hundred years, which the government of the newly formed Icelandic republic took over in 1944. I found a nice BA thesis from 2011 on the history of tobacco in Iceland that I'll let you read at your leisure, as well as a very cool book from 1758 called the Natural History of Iceland which states, "In this manner all payments are regulated by fish, and whatever comes to less than the value of twelve fish cannot be paid in money, but must either in fish, or roll tobacco, an ell of which is equal to a fish" (page 128.)
Today, more and more people I know are buying loose tobacco and hand-rolling with quality paper and filters. It's about half as expensive, and seems to have relaxed the culture of smoking overall. It takes time to roll a cigarette, which means there has to be forethought. They also burn slower than major-brand cigarettes with their treated paper, which means less of that creepy fast-action suck and drag that so many chronic smokers adopt. The doubling of the price of smokes here in just the past six years (they're almost $10 a pack), the ban on smoking indoors (adopted in 2007), and better preventive education means fewer and fewer smokers on our island. Good news.
As far as the Björk tobacco store goes, as you can see in the photo they have a ton of other cool products and souvenirs to keep them going, even as the culture of chronically, addictively puffing ciggies seems to be fading into what will hopefully one day be the distant past.
Posted by Iceland Eyes on January 08, 2014