Tobacco use is a controversial subject. Our government–federal, state and local–has waged a war on smoking for decades. And yet, millions of Americans choose to keep puffing away, which in a democratic-republic founded on civil liberties and personal freedoms is their right. So why are we so eager to remind them that smoking is dangerous and wag our fingers at them?
Last week, I was perusing Pinterest when I came across this shot of Scarlett Johannson. It’s a promotional still from the 2006 movie The Black Dahlia set in 1940s Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, as the film is a period piece with a hint of film noir, there are several scenes in the movie where the characters smoke. But several commenters were upset that the pinner would post the shot and reference it as being glamorous because Johansson was smoking a cigarette.
The discussion reminded me of a scene in the movie Thank you For Smoking where the Senator from Vermont defends his crusade to digitally alter classic films so that Bogart and Bacall’s cigarettes would be replaced with lollipops and coffee cups. (The scene is at time code 3:05.)
I was still pondering the photo comments on Sunday, when I watched a man standing outside of a restaurant approach a group of smokers and ask them to move further away from him. It was a public sidewalk. They weren’t breaking any laws. They were just standing eight feet away from him while he waited for the valet, but he felt empowered to ask them to move.
Now, I’m not a smoker. And yes, my decision not to smoke is partially influenced by decades of medical research that says that if I smoke I have a greater chance of dying from heart disease and various types of cancer. But the major reasons why I don’t smoke are the following: 1) it smells bad, 2) cigarettes are $8 a pack in D.C. and 3) nicotine use is a vice that I can do without.
But even as a non-smoker, I’m perplexed by how much vitriol and judgment is directed toward people who smoke.
According to research, one in five American adults smoke. And I’m certain that if you forced all of the “social smokers” and cigar smokers to check the box that number would be even higher.
Some of our society’s anti-smoking behavior is driven by a desire to avoid second hand smoke. We’ve banished smokers to stand in alleys and smoking zones. If they do find an establishment that allows smoking indoors, it’s in a special section, under special fans, away from all of the healthy, moral people. Our collective zeal has led some communities to ban smoking in bars, businesses, public parks and even smoking in your own home, if you live in a home that shares ventilation with other homes.
Women and men list their smoking status in their online dating profiles. Employers ask whether you smoke on job applications. Smokers are, for all intents and purposes, second class citizens. They are judged, they are ostracized and they are constantly reminded by people they know, and sometimes don’t know, that their vice/habit is unhealthy.
Smokers are not uneducated or unaware. Every smoker knows that smoking can be detrimental to your health, it’s written on the pack. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing commercials for products designed to help you quit smoking. And the public airwaves are filled with PSAs featuring former smokers with horrifying, life-altering ailments.
I guess what I’m saying is, we all have vices that are risky and unhealthy. Some of us drink too much. Some of us eat too much. Some of us get Brazilian blowouts or spend too much time in the sun.
We shame smokers for their choices, but would balk if they told us to stop drinking or tanning or eating cheeseburgers. What business of it is yours? We’d say. And yet, many people won’t hesitate to say to a smoker, “You know that thing will kill you.”
Trust me, they know.
So what do you ladies and gentlemen say? Do you smoke? Are you a dedicated non-smoker? Do you think we have a societal duty to rid the nation of smokers or do you believe in personal liberty? Leave your thoughts in the comments.