Media Watch

A phoney debate over dgarette addiction

George Bain August 26 1996
Media Watch

A phoney debate over dgarette addiction

George Bain August 26 1996

A phoney debate over dgarette addiction

Media Watch

George Bain

Because I hadn’t spotted a smoker among them, I did an informal survey of the people I see most and know best to find out about their smoking habits— past, and, in case I had missed something, present. I was right; none smoked. All but two of the two dozen had smoked at one time.

All in this group, with a couple of exceptions, are in, or close to my own age group, which is the 70s. Most had smoked for a long time before they quit for good. One, a career naval officer, gave up smoking relatively early in circumstances of little economic reward, considering that cigarettes aboard ship were then 10 cents a pack. One quit on doctor’s orders. The rest did it on their own.

Even if I confine this small survey to my own experience, I can say that not all of these are people of steely self-discipline, needing only to make the decision for a thing to be done, at once, and forever. I gave up cigarettes some time in my late 30s, having begun in the mid-teens. After several years off, I went back. I don’t know why. In a couple of years, I quit again, this time for good.

The first time I quit began when I woke up one morning with a hangover. The thought of a cigarette then, and for several days, was repellent. When that passed, no reason turned up to say I should resume.

The purpose of this column is not to enlighten, uplift or entertain. Certainly, it is written with no illusion that it will be found universally endearing. It is written simply in observance of a fact—that, in 1996, we in North America are undergoing another spasm of mass twitchiness about smoking and what needs to be done about it and reasonably can be. (Here the reader is entitled to know that it is my belief that in discussion of smoking as a social problem, the term reasonable has never excluded the unreasonable.)

These recurrent alarms about smoking as an ever-enlarging menace—nowadays routinely and at length covered by the media—go back at least 20 years, not that smoking has been recognized as a Bad Thing for only that long. Boys in the 1800s and perhaps the 1700s probably were being told, as I was in the 1900s, that smoking would stunt their growth, an assertion like some others on smoking that remains unproved.

Once, it was smoking—one person at time—that was bad, the practitioner deliberately drawing smoke into the lungs to his or her own satisfaction and perhaps destruction. Now, the antismoking message is not so much aimed at smokers as it is at nonsmokers, fearful of being exposed to smokers’ used smoke and readymade lobbyists for confining the decision to smoke or not to smoke as narrowly as possible.

According to the theory of transient smoke, it will be not only the boy who smokes who will grow up short, but any friends who

In discussing smoking as a social problem, the reasonable has never excluded the unreasonable

are around when he does it. Two items symbolic of 1996 in Canada as a vintage year for smoke alarmism are, in July, the lush crop of stories, countrywide, on Toronto City Council’s decision to ban smoking, flat out, in clubs, bars and restaurants, and, in August, two detailed proposals set out by Richard Bargen, chief medical officer for the Eastern Arctic. They are for consideration by community leaders for reform of smoking rules in what will become Nunavut in 1999.

As between the Toronto story and the Eastern Arctic’s, the first is less surprising, given that Toronto likes to be seen as world class in everything, evidently including political correctness. The scope of the second is surprising, indeed. It encompasses not just a plan to create segregated areas for smokers and nonsmokers just about everywhere people come together, but a scheme the author acknowledges as probably incapable of being accepted yet: to disallow the sale or storage of tobacco products altogether. (I had thought the Far North, with fewer people more widely scattered, and consequently fewer cars and trucks and industry than, say, Toronto, would provide enough clean air in any day and night to compensate the lungs for a few hours in the pub. But, evidently not.)

Still, the story that made this the antismoking smoking year for me was the one that showed how transient smoke can infiltrate even a U.S. presidential campaign. Remember the knock on the head it gave Bob Dole, early on, when he gave a couple of insufficiently condemning answers to questions about smoking? He found himself on television and in the newspapers being followed by a squad of young Democrats, with posters suggesting he was in the bag of the tobacco industry. With them was a walking cigarettefigure in white, called the Butt-Man. Dole’s sin had been to dither at the chance to say that smoking was addictive. He said he thought it was, sometimes. He didn’t seem to know that accepting cigarettes to be addictive is not now a matter or opinion; it is doctrine.

That’s where my survey comes in. Some of us spent time overseas in the several services in the Second World War. Government-sanctioned postal and taxation arrangements permitted friends in Canada to ship large packages of 300 and 500 cigarettes, as I remember it, prepaid, straight from the factory.

At one point, I had a kit bag intended to hold everything I owned filled with these large cartons of cigarettes. If anything was designed to ensure smokers became addicts (addiction: the state of being given up to something, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma), that was it.

What is wrong with the current insistence on smoking as addictive, not simply a bad habit, is that the term carries an implication of helplessness. The trauma (see personal recollection above) isn’t all that severe.