Everybody Knows Smoking Is Bad — So Why Do Some Still Do It?


I never smoked.  In my family, it was simply not an option.  My grandmother of blessed memory used to stand at the front door and kick out anybody who opened a box of cigarettes on the concrete stairs coming up to the front door, let alone anyone who actually looked as if they were or would smoke.

My father of blessed memory swore once that when he tried to bring home a buddy from Harvard who was smoking and appeared poorly dressed; my grandmother kicked him out at the door.

This friend allegedly turned out to be the famous author Norman Mailer. Yes, my Bubbie apparently chased Norman Mailer away, shouting at him, “Bum!  Bum!”

The years fit. And that is exactly the type of thing Bubbie would do. Her opinion of smoking was not much better — “It stinks and can’t be good for anyone breathing it, let alone the idiot who smokes it,” she said with characteristic wisdom.  Also with an overwhelming simplicity and clarity of thought.

The latter attributes, however, are more common by far than wisdom.   I really believe that therein lies the great problem of my age.

I believe that anyone who still thinks smoking might be beneficial for humans either has been hiding under a rock for a long period of time, or simply hurries up to do so whenever I am around.  We know we can live longer and healthier and better without this thing.

Still, it is not without controversy

I am not necessarily convinced that tobacco companies are trying to make cigarettes more deadly.  I mean, what is in it for them? I do think they are making them more “addictive.”  More people will buy them if and when they are more addictive.  This means more money in the bank.  It does not take a lifetime of higher education to figure out this one.  Of course they want cigarettes to appeal to younger kids.   Me, I was so resistant to peer pressure that I did not go through any of the customary rites of passage for adolescents.  I heard stories from others what it was like, and I can empathize.

The closest I ever came to such a rite of passage.  While living and attending med school in France, I was sitting in my “adopted mama’s” cafe on the marketplace when the restaurateur from across the street, the graying handsome patron with the ascot and the “smoking-jacket,” decided it would be good for my (absolutely non-existent) sex life if I took up smoking.  I refused every way I knew how, but he didn’t listen, and told me it could only improve my life by making me sexier.   He was determined to make it easy for me.  He would simply light his own cigarette and insert it between my lips, and direct me in the proper rhythm of inhaling. He told me I had to stop shaking my head or he could not get the damned thing in my mouth. He told me that this was going to work better if I took it in my left hand.  A little because he was “teaching” me a new thing, and I did everything else with my right hand. Mostly because it was an opposite gesture to how most people smoked with their right hands, therefore it was more sexy for a woman to smoke this way.

I never actually tasted the smoke.  The very thought and smell of the cigarette were enough to give me quite an attack of nausea.  I tried to fight off this man, while I went into an uncontrollable coughing jag and grabbed my stomach. He yelled that he had to stop this because I looked like I was going to throw up all over him. He said he despaired of teaching me any real sophistication.  But maybe it was not my fault, he said, maybe nobody could teach sophistication to Americans. Oy!

In prep school, we had an annual lecture by some Harvard type who was father of one of the girls.  He probably was a pathologist, for he had a good slide show of dead body parts, both normal and messed up by smoking.  Me, I thought it was way cool.  One of my classmates once told me it had made her feel like throwing up. I am completely unaware of it having stopped anyone from attempting smoking.

Okay, so our buddies at the C.D.C. (centers for disease control) are showing people who messed up their bodies with horrible stuff from smoke as a way of telling people not to smoke.  It seems to actually be working some, causing at least some people to stop smoking gradually on their own, which is undoubtedly a good thing. It is labeled as “controversial,” which is the hardest part of the story as far as I am concerned.  It comes from the truth, conveys the truth, and is helping people make what sound like outrageously good decisions. Is it controversial because it uses fear?  The fear is ethical and truthful and realistic. And yes, it seems to be necessary and helpful.

Part of what is going on here is economic conservatism. NOT political conservatism.  “Left” and “right” are short simple words, great targets for throwing tomatoes.

People who have money and want to keep it are generally very hesitant to change the way they got it.

The word conservatism seems to really mean, in many instances, not truly wanting to change anything.

Tobacco companies may go with the flow of whatever regulations are imposed upon them.  There is overwhelming evidence that smoking can and often does harm the human body in a seemingly endless myriad ways. Some might therefore argue that producing (at least tobacco based) cigarettes is ethically questionable at best. I am totally unaware of any effort by tobacco companies to create cigarettes of something like (I am clearly no expert on this one) … kale. I have not heard of anybody retooling any cigarette factories to produce toasted kale chips or the like, either.

Me, it has been pointed out to me a few times in my career that my naive sense of ethics could actually cause me problems.  I had one preceptor in psychopharmacology, of towering reputation, who managed to get away with nearly totally destructive little white lies pretty much all the time. He told me that with my attitude, I was probably going to end up “getting stoned, just like Copernicus.” He meant battered by rocks, not high as a kite, of course.

Admittedly the Catholics took a long time to give this dude the hero’s burial he deserved.

But his thoughts live on, and I have not found any reference to his having been stoned.

My sense of ethics is certainly strong enough that I would not want to work for a tobacco company, nor be involved in promoting tobacco in any way.

Part of what is going on is the “Tabloidification” of America.  The right-left, right-wrong, with-me-or-‘agin’-me desire for both the simplification and shortening of its news, as well as an unquenchable thirst for same.

When I was very teency and could barely read, I asked my mother of blessed memory, a couple of times, to buy me the National Enquirer or some similar publication at the checkout stand.  Frankly, I thought it was meant for little kids like me, because the print was bigger and the stories were shorter and easier.

My mother and father drove me to the news kiosk in Harvard Square and bought me a New York Times, and shoved it into my chubby little fist. I read it out on the front steps of the old homestead and a crowd gathered in disbelief and although I was shocked more than those who thought I was faking, I agreed to read it indoors and in private, even in the hot Boston area summer. But the ideal of reading more shorter and faster persists into the internet age.

Why else would a site like “Newser” have a motto like: “read less know more.”

With all this news out there, stories and their headlines simply have to shout “gotcha” at you or they are unlikely to get read.

In my only formal studies in stand-up comedy, far and away the most memorable exercise was converting headlines and story titles from the local city newspaper into comedy.  Doing this with the pretty mainstream “Minneapolis Star” took some work.  I later discovered obscure rural newspapers and other forms of all-too-easy ready-made hilarity.  Now everything — and I mean everything — looks like the tabloid headlines my mother of blessed memory would not let me buy in the supermarket.

Look at the titles of the two pages cited initially. “Big Tobacco’s Tricks Make Cigarettes More Harmful, Health Report Claims.”

We have a villain.  I cannot be the only one old enough to remember when headlines did not have villains.  The headlines were the tersest possible summary of facts, with their potentially villainous nature revealed in the body of the story.

“Shocking CDC anti-smoking campaign back with new ads.”

Somehow it is hard for me to consider anything the C.D.C. does as “shocking.”  Like most government bureaucracies in these United States, they seem toothless.  Is showing a video of someone near to death shocking?  Death may indeed have become too taken-for-granted, but death from cigarette related illness, even its depiction, is just not something I would consider “shocking.”

People making poor decisions is unfortunately far too common to be shocking.  I want a world where people think before they do things.  Most of all, I want a world where people have the time to see the hidden agendas of those who want them to do things.

In the final analysis, other people will want to think for you, to make your decisions look easy with simplified agendas.

And deeper agendas will generally lead you to someone who wants to make money.



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