Force of Habit

by by Eli Schmitt

On June 22, 2010, Americans will no longer be able to get free samples of cigarettes, procure promotional gear with tobacco brand-names, or buy fewer than 20 cigarettes at a time (smaller quantities = more affordable for kids with pocket money salaries). Furthermore, cigarette advertisements accessible to teens must be in black & white (for both print and video). These are some of the regulations the FDA announced last week, attempting to diminish tobacco companies’ efforts to “target” kids in their advertising campaigns.
Tighter ad regulations are part of a long, aggressive, and—in my eyes—ominous campaign to convince Americans that smoking is not only bad for your health but in fact morally depraved. The effort is multi-pronged. Rising tobacco taxes are arguably sensible. Increasingly anal-retentive legislation is annoying. Vaguely fascistic language is unnerving (“make smoking history,” a ubiquitous slogan in Massachusetts, the UK, and Australia, recalls other things—or peoples—with which governments have aggressively tried to ‘make history’). The effect, all-told, is clear. It is increasingly hard to smoke a cigarette without getting dirty looks (at best). My concern here, however, is not the pride of sidewalk smokers. Anti-smoking legislation raises troubling questions about personal liberty, class, and cultural taboo.
Issues with Money
According to a Gallup poll, 62 percent of smokers are from households with annual incomes less than $35,000; therein, 34 percent of all smokers are from households with annual incomes less than $12,000. Given these numbers, the multivalent effort to discourage smoking on behalf of public health effectively ghettoizes it. Current anti-smoking rules and attitudes have the monetary effect of a poor tax, and the social effect of making smoking a behavior that “poor people” do. The insidiousness of relegating toxic behaviors to the destitute is far more insidious than the objective facts of heart disease and lung cancer. Besides associating something that is ostensibly immoral with poverty, it effectively condones the poor poisoning themselves.
Incredulous? Legislation passed in 2009 banned flavored cigarettes of all kinds, except mentholated cigarettes, 75 percent of which are purchased by African Americans. The law ostensibly aims to limit tobacco products that will appeal to children—and yet, menthols, the best known flavored cigarette, which is most popular among one of the most historically oppressed minority groups in America, is exempted. 
But don’t these laws constitute steps in the right direction, even if they aren’t perfect? No. Smoking may be dumb, but it’s not in the purview of the government to ban dumb things (I feel the same way about gambling, fireworks, and harem pants). ‘Wait!’ cries the layman econ. concentrator, ‘Aren’t the costs that widespread smoking has on public health effect sufficient to warrant a ban?’ This concern (which is especially valid after the passage of the healthcare bill last Sunday) can be met by paying for cigarette related healthcare measures (assistance quitting as well as medical procedures) in part with the revenue from exorbitant cigarettes taxes. This economic measure would offset the literal cost of smoking without making it a moral issue (read: something disgusting poor people do). Ideally. 

Bans & Advertising 
One might argue that the FDA rules from last week don’t condemn smoking outright; they simply limit advertising. This is true. This law does not impinge on one’s choice to smoke, directly. Rather it aims to prevent people, specifically minors from thinking to make that choice. In effect, it posits the tremendous effect of advertising on decision-making. In ’50s and ’60s, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote extensively on the economic effects of advertising. He argued that while consumers were entirely entitled to have “bizarre, frivolous, or even immoral” preferences, these preferences ought to originate from the consumer, not from the advertising campaigns of large corporations.
Among contemporary economists, Galbraith’s arguments are not taken especially seriously, in part because of Friederich Hayek’s refutation that the distinction between preferences originating inside or outside of the consumer was bogus (i.e. the only ‘original’ preferences are food, shelter, sex). The other reason for Galbraith’s discredit is that his assertions about the power of massive corporations to control markets regardless of consumers’ actual desires has not stood the test of time. Firms like GM—which Galbraith described as being ‘above’ the constraints of actual consumer preference because of their power to advertise—have diminished based, to some extent, on consumers’ preference for their competitors’ products. 
This historical anecdote bears two points. The first is that is that there is little sense in the government intervening in advertising for the sake of consumers. It may be widely understood that minors cannot act on their own behalves (because under the age of 18 you are infinitely malleable and have no common sense), but this is why it is illegal to buy cigarettes as a minor (a law which last week’s FDA move makes consistent across all 50 states). Secondly, it’s unclear to me that smoking isn’t actually appealing on its own. It is hard to assess the effectiveness of such regulations, since other preventative measures (consequences for selling cigarettes to minors, higher tobacco taxes) have occurred concomitantly, obscuring efforts to calculate the effects of advertising. Arguably though, the role of cigarette advertising is to convince smokers (or potential smokers) to buy your brand of cigarettes—and that peddling smoking, per se, is an afterthought. RJ Reynolds doesn’t just want new smokers in general. . . they want RJ Reynolds smokers. What I’m getting at is that advertising doesn’t cause smoking, and that even if we got rid of all cigarette advertising, anywhere, ever, there would still be smokers.

Cigarette as Thrysus 
The problem with controlling cigarette advertising is that smoking doesn’t really need to be advertised; it sells itself. As Richard Klein, professor of French Literature at Cornell and author of Cigarettes are Sublime, wrote, intrinsic in the act of smoking is “a darkly beautiful, inevitably painful pleasure.” The act is inherently appealing, Klein argues, but “warning smokers or neophytes of the dangers entices them more powerfully to the edge of the abyss, where, like travelers in a Swiss landscape, they can be thrilled by the subtle grandeur of the perspectives on mortality opened by the little terrors in every puff.”
This is why the effort to vilify smoking has become so moral. You can’t do it outside public doorways in various states, not because passers-by can’t hold their breath if they see fit. It’s because if we don’t suppress cigarettes, the arguments on behalf of health, even moderate taxes, won’t stop it. It is a failure of collective public discourse that it lacks the complexity to oppose something without also declaring it morally reprehensible. Until we can teach children that getting stoned every day is generally an indecorous waste of time without sermonizing, we will continue to render sexy that which we condemn. And smoking cigarettes is already so sexy to begin with.

I think I love you – so what am I so afraid of?
The furious reader responds: sexy or not sexy, smoking kills people. To be clear: I am not saying that smoking is good. I am saying that it is compelling. It is true that our bodies are fragile, contingent vessels which are not well served by many of our behaviors. This liberal, middle-class, centrist, medically-based terror, though, this pure outrage, seems most ominous to me. We should also all be thin. We should also all exercise. We should also all ‘love ourselves.’ The fierce cultural paean we sing to the bodily ideals of “health,” “fitness,” “long-
life,” and “happiness” should not be sung louder than that quiet, familiar tune we must always hum to ourselves—not just in our heads, but on street-corners and in statehouses—that of the ownership of the individual over his or her body; and therein, the inalienable right to smoke like a chimney.
As regards last week’s regulations, I would rather the government—or more specifically, the FDA, that opaque wing of the government tasked with regulating foodstuffs and controlled substances—not also be responsible for deciding which kinds of media children have access to. As with other great American wars concerned in no way with literal territory (see the red scare, the war on drugs) the battle against smoking is not entirely pointless. It is, however, a site where we should exercise caution, and perhaps be more self-critical of how we can harm ourselves—even in what was originally a well-intentioned effort to protect.

Eli Schmitt B'11 does not smoke.