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Starbucks and Big Tobacco

Can the U.S. multinational company Starbucks combat nicotine addiction in Europe?

October 1, 2002

Can the U.S. multinational company Starbucks combat nicotine addiction in Europe?

Historically, Vienna is home to the Habsburg empire and to Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis. And yet, today the city is a key battleground for the fight between the different values enshrined in U.S. and European culture.

In one corner is Starbucks, America's own empire of coffee, which has brought frappuccinos to countless caffeinated Americans — and now brings them to European consumers, too.

In the other corner is the Museum Quarter (or MQ), Vienna's new art and culture center housed in the former Habsburg imperial stables. It also is the institution upon which lies the city's claim to be the 21st century global cultural capital.

Just what is the source of this transatlantic battle on the Danube? It's not coffee itself. In fact, that's one thing both American caffeine-heads and Austrian Eiskaffee addicts can't seem to get enough of. And the battle also is not over where and how coffee is served.

Despite occasional rumbling, there is no Austrian José Bové, France's famous anti-McDonalds activist. Nobody here is lurking behind the scenes, ready to ransack the nearest outpost of the Seattle-based coffee chain in defense of the rarified Viennese coffee house.

The brewing conflict, in fact, surrounds another European import from the glorious Age of Encounter: tobacco. And while Starbucks is so often portrayed as the invincible U.S. multinational inexorably conquering the world, it is in fact the one which is engaged in a lonely — and so-far losing — battle: The company is trying to convince the Europeans of the pleasures of life without tobacco.

It isn’t just that the U.S. firm has to battle a tradition of over 100 years of smoke-filled Viennese coffee houses. On top of that, it now has to contend with Culture with a capital "C"— in the form of the Museum of Tobacco, one of the aforementioned Museum Quarter's half-dozen exhibition spaces.

Sponsored by Austria's former tobacco monopoly, Austria Tabak, the Tobacco Museum bills itself as a "cultural center" and "meeting place" for smokers — and "tolerant non-smokers."

In addition to several exhibits on the history of the evil weed, this Viennese museum offers ample space for concerts and temporary art shows, apparently in an attempt to promote the continued peaceful coexistence of culture and tobacco.

This, in a way, is the same thing that many Viennese coffee houses do on a less grandiose scale, with their racks full of the world's newspapers — and the occasional concert or poetry reading.

Either way you look at it, it all comes down to a battle over tobacco. In the end, the question is: Who will win this battle? Will it be lowly Starbucks —with its five Vienna outlets, where customers are politely asked to refrain from smoking because "we wish to preserve the freshness and aroma of our precious coffee beans"?

Or will it be Big Tobacco, with its public relations effort — uh, museum — so prominently located in one of Europe's most prestigious houses of culture?

It's still too early to tell. Perhaps the Viennese will indeed begin to savor coffee's true pleasures unaccompanied by cigarette smoke. If that happens, Starbucks just may succeed in making gains in this transatlantic culture war.

Still, the story raises an intriguing question. By now, Starbucks has become a unique cultural icon on a global scale. But just whose culture does it really represent? Some would argue that the Seattle coffee chain is a sure sign of the continued fight for preeminence, if not dominance by U.S. cultural — and corporate — interests on the old continent.

But there are also those who see it the other way around. In fact, Howard Schultz, Starbucks' chairman and chief global strategist, was inspired by the convivial, neighborhood feel of the coffee-houses he saw in Italy. And his ever more global chain is based on this European concept.

Yes, Starbucks — with its take-away cappuccinos and lattes — today reflects some of the hustle and bustle of typical U.S. life in the modern era. But it’s also true that the Seattle chain is very much a fifth column for European culture in the United States — not the other way around.

After all, Starbucks' success in the United States is a sign that Americans have waved the white flag in the coffee wars, saying "we give up — European-style, high-quality coffee is better."

Moreover, Starbucks has brought meeting and resting and talking places to many downtown areas in key locales all around the United States.

No, a Starbucks doesn’t quite add up to a Parisian café. But the ubiquitous company has done much to provide Americans with public spaces where they can hang out to read and write — all for the lowly price of a paper cup of good coffee.

Yes, Starbucks’ coffee is expensive — but one has to consider that, beyond paying for coffee and service, one also pays the company a fee for the creation of a decent public space that does not work on the fast-food clock.

As a matter of fact, the absence of a Starbucks-like space in the United States was something that most Europeans always held as an indictment against the all-too-efficency-oriented U.S. culture.

That this was done by way of a coffee chain may be the peculiarly American way. But it still creates something akin to an urban respite zone.

With all those arguments pointing toward Starbucks as something quasi-European in American life, one has to wonder: In light of the Vienna battles, shouldn't it now be the turn of Europeans to open themselves up to the virtues of the U.S.-style smoke-free existence?

Of course, stubborn Europeans with their entrenched cultural habits just may not see it that way. In that case, maybe Starbucks could take a cue from Austria Tabak — and get into the cultural sponsorship business itself. How about a "Museum of Coffee" in major European cities? They would all be smoke-free, of course.