America Smokes

The majority of people who read my blog live in Virginia. If you’ve had the dire misfortune of being born anywhere but our fine commonwealth then there’s a 50/50 chance that you are from a state that has already passed an indoor smoking ban and an even better chance that you’re from a state that has at least some sort of restriction on the ability to smoke indoors.

One of the most important things to know about Virginia is that Virginia loves smoking, in fact we love smoking so much that a nonsmoker from Virginia smokes more than a smoker from any other state. With all the wealth of information about tobacco’s links to heart disease, cancer, &c, you’re probably wondering why we love smoking so much. Well the primary reason that we love smoking so much is that we love freedom and we know that smoking is patriotic. I don’t even smoke but I don’t let that stop me from inhaling at least a pack’s worth of tar and nicotine a day at the various restaurants and clubs I frequent, because if there’s one thing people know about me, it’s that I love freedom and I love America. This is why I am so concerned about the new VA indoor smoking ban.

On December 1st of 2009, a smoking ban passed earlier in the year finally took effect. One cannot overstate the difficulty of passing any restrictions on smoking in the state that is home to Philip Morris, the largest cigarette maker in the country. I have been calling and writing my representatives trying to get this bill passed for the past few years and every year up til now it has been killed in committee — democracy at its finest. The only way that the legislature was able to pass it this year was by giving several concessions to opponents of the bill, namely that smoking is still permitted in businesses that construct a separate smoking section with separate ventilation. Also Governor Kaine had to behead a chicken in a bizarre legislative voodoo bonfire ritual conducted on the grounds of the capitol.

It’s rare that the government does anything that I agree with so I rarely have any occasion to voice any support for a law or a policy of any sort but once in a while it happens and this is one of those occasions. I was more excited about the passing of an indoor smoking ban in VA than I was about President Obama’s election because this actually represents a real change that affects me personally. The indoor smoking ban — even with all its flaws and compromises — constitutes my proudest moment as a Virginian.

There was a cognitive disconnect for people between when the bill was passed and when it took effect so people didn’t really start whining and complaining about the smoking ban until it actually took effect a month ago. The indoor smoking ban really gets under the skin of Virginians first and foremost because of our aforementioned love of tobacco, but it also raises a deeply genetic disposition toward civil disobedience and archaic revolutionary rhetoric and hyperbole. People are so indignant about the ban that everyday I leave my apartment expecting to see pamphleteers and town criers inciting people to armed insurrection against the government, buckled shoes, tricornered hats, and muskets in tow.

As of yet the revolution has been mostly kept to circulating internet lists of “smoke friendly” Virginia restaurants and ultra-libertarian blog postings.

All of this is noteworthy to me firstly because as I said before I’ve never really sided with the government before so it’s an unfamiliar feeling to agree with the government and insult the people who are fighting against the law. Secondly it is interesting to me because the kind of rhetoric floating around is typical of a specific and particularly stupid American mindset and therefore gives special insight into the collective consciousness of these people. Aberrant stupid behavior might be more novel, but it is less insightful.

The first thing that I love about “Revolutionary Smoking” is the kind of powerful language used to defend the “right to smoke.” Based on the kind of arguments being made on messageboards, blogs, and the comments section of local newspapers, you’d think that VA was under martial law with the way people are talking about their constitutional freedoms, civil liberties, and governmental tyranny. The level of ideological inconsistency is so overwhelming it almost chokes you, but really these people are never concerned with a moral or a political stand, they’re merely concerned with the continuation of their lazy and self-indulgent lifestyle and they’ll temporarily latch onto any cause that promises to resist any meaningful change. The truth is that someone invoking their civil liberties to defend their pollution of my air is so silly that it’s surprising that anyone can really make the argument with a straight face.

The people who are complaining fall into two categories: smokers and bar owners. Smokers are concerned about the inconvenience of having to smoke outside or to change their habits to start frequenting establishments with approved smoking areas. You can only imagine the amount of sympathy that I feel for a person who thinks that having to step outside to smoke is symptomatic of an authoritarian regime and that it’s their constitutionally granted right to increase my chances of a dozen illnesses because I had the misfortune of sitting down at the same restaurant as them.

Bar owners are concerned about their profits and if there is one tradition in America that we hold above all others, it is that we love to mask a concern about money with enlightened and high-minded sounding rhetoric about personal liberty and the social contract.

The truth is that the issue at hand is peoples’ health which is more important than your convenience and more important than your profits. Relying on the market to solve a problem like this is naive, as long as the tobacco industry is pulling in billions of dollars there is never going to be a voluntary move toward being smoke free.

I am not in favor of outlawing cigarettes anymore than I am in favor of the current war on drugs because I don’t think that the government should be imprisoning people for engaging in recreation that harms only them, but the entire dynamic changes when your recreation starts to affect my health. I have the right to visit any public space, restaurant, or club without having to breathe toxic smoke.

There’s an old saying, “Your right to swing your fist stops at my nose.”

We live in a culture that has gotten progressively more self-absorbed, complacent, and greedy over the past hundred years and politicians, companies (especially service industry companies like restaurants) have bent over backwards trying to out-convenience each other and create more and more ways to give people everything they want without having to pay full price for it, work for it, wait for it, or feel the consequences of it. The government uses our tax money to subsidize farmers so we can buy meat for 1/6 the market price, we drop bombs on countries to maintain our supply of cheap oil so we don’t have to tell people not to drive cars anymore. It’s really hard to tell a person to give up a luxury you’ve already given them, and so we have an entire country of people who feel 100% entitled to every piece of cushion in their seats and every piece of food on their plate that when someone tries to tell them to go outside to smoke, or cut back on their driving or meat consumption they are ready to set up barricades in the street.

We are so afraid to tell people that maybe not every comfort is a god-given right that even those of us who try to live in a reasonably responsible manner find ourselves pandering to this ignorance when we discuss morality with most people. I find myself trying to convince people to go vegan by discussing the benefits to them personally because I know that if I tell them the truth — that they never had the right to eat meat in the first place — they’re not going to listen.

Truthfully this has been a part of our culture from the beginning. America wasn’t founded by philosophers who sought to embody some abstract enlightenment ideals. It was founded by businessmen who were frustrated with unfair taxation. Profit and convenience.

People who have raised such hell over the smoking ban are being more American than they ever realized.

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