May 22nd, 2003

I am a nonsmoker who has never routinely smoked. I tried it when I was a teen, owing to that cool kid clique pressure that does exist. It is a pressure that adults soon forget the real nature of and then dramatize in ways that make adults seem painfully uncool. It makes you wonder why kids want to mimic them. 

 

Smoking looks cool. Some people may be reasonably turned off by smokers, averse to the smell of smoke (which is also left on smokers) or to a person choosing to be unhealthy. If smoking weren't unhealthy and smoke didn’t smell, smoking would look cool to almost everyone. Sexy, like sucking on a lollipop. Anti-smoking ads that aim to discredit the “coolness” of smoking are doomed to failure. There is no “coolness” to be had in not smoking, only “coolness” to be had in good health.

 

Some people, especially teens, relish the mark of being unhealthy and disapproved of. Most moderate to heavy smokers smoke mainly because they have grown used to it. Over time they develop a strong psychological and minor physical addiction, which translates as a pleasure. How they look and how they are viewed becomes a secondary consideration or none at all. Some feel trapped, wishing to quit but finding it too difficult. Smoking may cut down on one’s quality of life but it’s usually not in a way that is blatantly perceptible (e.g. less stamina). The truly dangerous ill health effects of smoking build up over years. Smokers function and act normally. People think in the short and the immediate term so it is difficult to make the mental connection between daily smoking and the bad that will follow. Almost all smokers are now well aware of the long-term risks but they assume these risks, dismiss these risks or rationalize that they won’t be soon or ever be affected.

 

Nonsmokers, especially young nonsmokers, are caught up in the inconsistency and inconclusiveness of having to choose between smoking and not smoking, only as it relates to physical health. The choice is more complex. It is between feeling cool, deriving pleasure from a physical and psychological crutch, and weighing these immediate goods against the negative long-term health consequences. We don’t sound this out in our heads. We’re not that logical. The process of becoming a smoker is oddly illogical. Smoking begins as physical discomfort and becomes a physical pleasure and comfort only if one keeps at it. Usually “coolness” is the primary incentive, more important, more pleasurable than not coughing. Even a person who has become sick from smoking but chooses to continue is prioritizing the pleasure of custom over the pleasure of potentially and likely better health. Smokers are comfort eaters, the only difference being that delicious food is not an acquired taste and pleasure. 

 

The societal backlash against smoking has indeed encouraged many smokers to quit as well as discouraged many adults from taking up the habit. That teenagers have not been similarly discouraged can’t be entirely explained away by their naiveté and rebelliousness. The societal backlash against smoking has been more emotional than honest. It’s not only about an unqualified good of protecting and saving lives. It's about recognizing why people smoke and that this choice isn't a human anomaly. People are imperfect; people are not perfectible. All of us are self destructive to some degree in at least some of our pleasure seeking choices; it’s unusual that such choices would not adversely affect others, even in a minimal way. This human reality cannot be legislated or even tabooed away entirely. We strive to legally and civilly place limits on individual rights in an attempt to organize and bring about an optimum balance of respecting individual rights, limiting personal harm and promoting public health. By no means is this an easy formula to plan for or achieve. Such a formula should be a reasoned, trial-and-error estimation and as such will never be a success from every angle. There is no single or static formula.

 

There is no law banning smoking entirely. This is the effect of the current legal backlash, the regressive taxes and increasing, unbending limitations on where people can smoke. We scarcely if ever legislate against alcohol abuse. To get drunk, in and of itself, is legal. We want to protect our right to drink, even to get drunk. Smoking is immediately irritating and possibly detrimental to nonsmokers. The effects of alcohol consumption are contingent upon the amount of alcohol consumed and the agency of the person who consumed it. It is fair to say that alcohol abuse causes more societal problems in the sum total than smoking, and it’s probably true even proportionally. The reason we tolerate alcohol use and abuse as we do has at least as much to do with our own personal want for alcohol as it does with the contention that alcohol does not have to be abused. Alcohol prohibition seems an absurd idea because almost all of us drink and want to drink. We even want the freedom to abuse alcohol and hide behind the only partly true arguments that you can’t effectively monitor alcohol use nor does alcohol abuse necessarily lead to other abuses. 

 

Since so many of us do not want to smoke and find smoking annoying and obviously harmful, we’ve made little to no allowance for smoker’s rights or the right of people to service smokers. Have we collectively decided that smoking is an unbearable abuse to us all? If so, why is it still legal? If you understand the smoking habit and want to recognize a person’s right to smoke then it’s wrong to support legislation that is geared towards getting smokers to quit. Instead, we should be assessing value to smoker’s rights, the rights of the people who service smokers, nonsmoker’s rights and promoting public health, and aiming to honor each in sound measure. 

 

If we tolerate smokers at all, then we need to try to strike a balance in regulation, not to influence smokers to quit by legislating misery into their habit. The real misery of the habit is the eventual and serious health deterioration that will likely affect them. We can try to address this publicly with information campaigns, quit-smoking kits and support groups. If we make the smoking habit miserable by taboo, it is not at the expense of a smoker’s right but by the exercising of our own right to dissent. To say that you accept a person’s right to smoke as long as it’s always 100 feet away from you is generally impractical enough that it amounts to not accepting smokers at all. To not believe in smokers’ rights is a fair position but rarely one taken. 

 

I probably could not smoke regularly, even if I wanted to. I’m an allergic person. Even a small amount of smoke makes my eyes sting and water. My mother smoked while she was pregnant with me. At the time, she had no knowledge of the risks to the fetus but I’m not sure she would’ve quit if she had (She told me she definitely would have). It is unforgivable that the tobacco companies have knowingly misled people about risks. Yet since we understood that smoking inhalation is unhealthy we can’t behave as if we never had any idea whatsoever that smoking was even remotely bad. I only have sympathy for the tobacco companies insofar as the suits have exposed personal and public lies and deep hypocrisy. If it’s all about health, why doesn’t the tobacco settlement money go to the American Lung and Heart Associations? It’s unjust and makes no sense to award huge settlements to a select few or even to the states, if justice for smokers’ bad health is at issue. If the tobacco settlements are punitive fines for breaking laws, misrepresenting cigarette ingredients, why don’t we have tobacco companies list ingredients in their exact proportions and semi routinely have a government body do a quality control check? I do NOT excuse the tobacco companies for tampering with or misrepresenting the ingredients in cigarettes. I do doubt that an honest ingredient list would’ve given smokers pause to quit or potential smokers cause not to try cigarettes. Does anyone ever put a pack of cigarettes down because of the boldfaced warning label? I do not doubt that tobacco companies want to get people addicted. I also do not doubt that smokers knowingly risk addiction, and in some cases seek it. I especially do not doubt that tobacco companies aren’t the only ones happily benefiting from cigarette addiction. The states benefit financially. Smokers benefit in pleasure, some without reservation. 

 

My mother smoked during her pregnancies and twice gave birth prematurely; one of these births was highly premature. Fortunately both babies grew up very healthy. It’s impossible to say whether either child was otherwise adversely affected by the smoking, which likely was partly or wholly the cause of both premature births. My mother also had a baby that died from SIDS. She has often wondered and still wonders if her smoking habit contributed. Years after bearing all her children, my mother became very ill with a walking pneumonia, which was attributed to smoking. She quit. It wasn’t the first time she had tried. She hasn’t smoked for many years now and she occasionally reflects on her former habit. She could rightfully deflect at least some of her anger onto the tobacco companies but she always directs it at herself. 

 

If we’re going to be angry at tobacco companies let it be for their breaking laws, for outright deception. Let it not be for marketing an item that continues to be legal or for profiting off an unhealthy product. Is this really any different than a burger company advertising a juicy fat dripping hamburger? Then again, some people are angry about that too. It’s interesting that the bulk of discontent is directed at McDonald’s, not the small burger joint down the block or the burger consumer himself, no matter how many burgers he consumes. The idea of profiting from providing a pleasurable but unhealthy product is anathema to some. The idea of withholding every pleasurable but unhealthy product is anathema to all. Producers and sellers can identify desire, they can play on desire, even distort desire but they cannot manufacture desire outright. If we want to curtail unhealthy human desires and their fulfillment, it will not be by trumpeting the false claim that unhealthy human desires and their fulfillment are each devoid of any real choice. 

 

All that said, I present to you the parody “Snuff the One Lung Dragon” (sung to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon”)

 

SNUFF THE ONE LUNG DRAGON

 

Snuff the one lung dragon

Raised in N-Y-C

He toked and smoked. He coughed and choked. But lived on happily.

The states sued big tobacco

Big bucks to the man

Not much for ads that cancer’s bad and wasn’t that the plan?

 

CHORUS:

Snuff the one lung dragon

Raised in N-Y-C

He toked and smoked. He coughed and choked. But lived on happily. 

Snuff the one lung dragon

Raised in N-Y-C

He toked and smoked. He coughed and choked. But lived on happily.

 

Mayor Michael Bloomberg set the bars much higher

He taxed the packs and outlawed acts

Of smoking outside fire

Does someone hold my car keys if I’ve too many shots? 

Suppose that threat will soon be met once we connect the dots.

Smoking is still legal if you don’t light up

If you want to drink booze you’ll have to think ruse and wave a water cup

 

CHORUS

 

No smoking in the casino

I'll need to breathe easy

Losing family savings, these are sleazy cravings

But they made me V.I.P

See my vices will hurt no one

While your vices do hurt me

No compromise means to criminalize

And still no one is vice free 

 

Aint enough to have smoking sections

More windows, vents, and air.

Society is for the good of me 

so that just would not be fair.

Wretched be the smokers

Who can’t get on the wagon

They’ll all burn in hell with a nicotine smell

Like Snuff the one lung dragon

 

CHORUS

 

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE