Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Evils of Smoking

Let me get one thing out of the way immediately: I am not a smoker, have never been a smoker, and I detest everything about smoking. Maybe that’s three things. I detest the way smokers demonstrate a complete disregard for the people and the world around them. I sometimes have to sit here in this study while my neighbour pops outside for a smoke—mustn’t smoke in the house!—only to have his poison drift into this room and up my nostrils. I don’t want to smell his smoke any more than I want to smell his farts. I know when someone three doors down lights up a smoke.

But it’s not only the smoke. It’s the way smokers toss their butts on the ground. And unless you have never done this, or never smoked within ten metres of someone else, please don’t claim to be a ‘considerate’ smoker.

There. Now that’s off my chest.

Despite all this, I find it extremely odd the way that smoking has been singled out for attention by legislators, at least in this country. Smoking, after all, is not illegal. Yes it harms the health of the smoker. Yes it harms the health of others around. Yes it represents a great burden on the public health system. But so do junk food, gambling, our present government and, above all, alcohol. So why, then, do smokers and the tobacco industry come under what seems to be such a disproportionate amount of pressure?

I’m not sure I have the answer. The comparison with alcohol is the most obvious. Alcohol consumption is dangerous in both the short and long term. It is at the root of many fatal vehicle accidents; it is the cause of many associated risky behaviours; it is the basis for a great deal of violence in the home and on the streets. Not to mention the direct health effects and costs. Yet alcohol is still freely available. It is still advertised. Alcohol consumption continues to be regarded generally in society (as demonstrated by its actions if not its words) as ‘harmless fun’. Why this contrast with smoking? I don’t know.

This reminds me, in some ways, of the gun debate, and probably says a great deal about our society. It seems fairly clear that a large section of American (USA) society, regards gun ownership, not simply as a right, but as normal. As normal as owning a car or a dog. People have cars. People have guns. This is part of the American culture. Life without guns would seem odd, if not, somehow, incomplete and unsatisfying. I suspect something similar is true of Australian attitudes towards alcohol. The consumption of alcohol is completely integral to Australian society at almost every level. To attack alcohol is, in a very real way, to attack what it means to be Australian. Sound a bit like attacking gun ownership in the USA? I think so. I imagine people in Turkey, where it is probably considered antisocial (for a man, at least) not to smoke, would start a revolution if the government attempted, directly or indirectly, to restrict tobacco sales. Someone in a strict Islamic nation (at least in theory) would look in contempt at our consumption of alcohol. From their perspective, alcohol consumption here in Australia probably looks much like gun ownership in the USA looks to many of us: ‘What’s wrong with those people? Can’t they see the problems alcohol [substitute here, ‘guns’ or ‘tobacco’ according to your preference] causes?’

It seems that in each culture or society there are some obviously dangerous and harmful behaviours which that culture not only tolerates, but embraces. Societies appear, by and large, to be willing to pay the price that inevitably accompanies such activities. Why these but not others? Who knows? To each their own poison, I suppose.

Why tobacco has become the thing to hate in Australia remains unclear. I know why I hate it (he says, closing his window as the neighbour has another fix). But why society as a whole has so turned against it remains puzzling.

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