Let's Ban Smoking Outright

OK, it's a stupid, fascist, unnecessary, unworkable, historically discredited idea. But what's wrong with it?

| March 17, 1994

Tell me what you think of this opening line:

"Catherine crushed her cigarette out in the loam of a dying fern."

Can you see it? Are you there? It's from a short story I wrote when I was twentysomething. I've forgotten what it was called--something opaque, I bet, like "The Conversation" or "After the Train"--but I seem to have memorized that first sentence, anyway. And I must say it's characteristic of my early work. I don't mean that I had a style, exactly. I mean the cigarette. If she hadn't "crushed" it out, she'd have "stabbed" or "stubbed" it out, or "flicked it away into the wind," or "shredded it into the blow-hole of her empty Tab can." Because in my stories, people smoked. Not when they were underwater. And not during sex. But if, for example, they were required to frown thoughtfully out the window, or lean back in a chair after dialing a telephone, or pace a hallway lit from above by a single naked bulb, they would expel a measurable amount of smoke in the process. Any longish speech would be interrupted, at least once, by a punctuational cigarette gesture or some small accident involving ashes. And the casual accessories of addiction--embossed lighters, beanbag ashtrays, those little spray bottles of Binaca--popped up everywhere as props and symbols.

This was no accident. In fact, the cigarette smoke that was forever "wafting," "drifting," "coiling," and even "spiraling" through my imperishable, unpublishable fiction was not itself fictional. It was coming straight out of my nostrils. Because I smoked myself, in those days. Heavily. Constantly. And if there was one time I was sure to be smoking, it was while forging my art. With a cigarette "dangling from my lip," as I "crouched over my battered Remington," I could write. Without one, I was distracted, fragmented, hopeless. I don't know if smoking helped me concentrate. But not smoking made concentration impossible.

In any case, I smoked all the time. I started before breakfast--I skipped breakfast, actually--and kept it up till bedtime, sometimes beyond. I wasn't literally a "chain" smoker, because I didn't light each new cigarette with the butt of the last one. I used matches. But the reasons for this were more aesthetic than practical. I allowed myself no appreciable pause between smokes. I was, after all, a three-pack-a-day man. And leaving aside all the time I spent eating meals, on trains, in elevators, brushing my teeth--well, there were only so many waking hours left.

It goes without saying that I knew cigarette smoking was hazardous to my health. Apart from anything else, I was warned of the danger at least 10,000 times--that's if you count all the warnings printed on all the packs I cracked during roughly ten years of smoking. I am a man who ignored 10,000 warnings--it's a remarkable little factoid, isn't it? I can't seem to take my eyes off it. It belongs on the wall of one of those cheesy oddity museums, between the shrunken hand from Borneo and the two-headed cow fetus. Except it's not the record. I'm sure it's not even close.

When I finally did quit (June 26, 1986) it had nothing to do with warnings or other outside influences and everything to do with the accumulated miseries of a decade's smoke inhalation. I didn't join any smoke-outs. I just quit. But it was a matter of years before I was quite myself again. I got heavily into toothpicks, cocktail straws, Ohio Blue Tips. I chewed so much sugarless gum that it became a problem. (Take it easy on that sorbitol, people--did you know it was a laxative?) I don't know how many times I wished that perfectly simple, perfectly impossible smoker's wish: that I had never started. But I had no right to complain. I got what everybody gets: an efficient market, in which "consumers" make "informed choices" after having all the "costs" of smoking disclosed to them; and a just and tidy moral universe--in which each and every soul is left free to choose between the darkness and a light.

Now, more than seven years later, I'm still chewing gum, still chomping fiercely on a toothpick as I write. And I'm beginning to wonder if things really had to be this way.

Why couldn't we--why couldn't somebody--just outlaw cigarettes?

Confused murmuring. Stirring of chairs. Preliminary drafting of indignant letters to the editor. Sirs: Never in all my long life . . .

But wait a second. It's a question I'm asking. Doesn't anyone else ever wonder about this? Everybody seems to look forward to the eradication of smoking as a distant goal--it's considered, for one thing, the most "preventable" cause of premature death in America--but nobody seems tempted to go the short way. It's strange. Especially at a time when crude, simplistic solutions to complicated problems (the balanced budget amendment, congressional term limits, Ross Perot) have such wide appeal. It's not as though anybody outside of the Tobacco Institute takes the idea of "smokers' rights" seriously. And there doesn't seem to be any fund of public goodwill or even tolerance for smokers to draw on. They're goaded and sniped at by petty officials and "activists," harried by their own children, humiliated by their peers. When you find smokers at all these days, you find them apologizing for themselves, begging permission, huddling in doorways, lingering by elevators, skulking. The places you can't smoke already include whole stadiums, whole airports. And the latest crop of proposals would rule out entire abstract categories. As I write this, a U.S. House subcommittee is looking over legislation that would ban smoking in virtually all nonresidential public buildings--not just office buildings but bowling alleys, VFW halls, garages. Diners. Bars. (No smoking in bars?) And the Food and Drug Administration is considering asserting jurisdiction over smoking-tobacco products, because of what is described as "mounting evidence" that cigarettes--steady, now--are "made and sold to satisfy and maintain addictions."

Nakedly punitive taxes are obviously the next big thing. Voters have been approving massive state tobacco-tax increases lately (California, Nevada, Massachusetts), in some cases after campaigns in which proponents of the increases were outspent (by groups with not-at-all-suspicious names like Citizens Against Unfair Taxation) on the order of ten to one. Health care reform is expected to be financed in part by a quadrupling of the federal "sin tax" on cigarettes, and that seems to be one of the least controversial parts of the package. I don't see any backlash forming, do you? Smokers grumble, sure. But nobody listens. (Or rather, we listen, we nod, but what we're really thinking is: it's good for them to suffer.) I gather that the tax and public health authorities could keep piling on the "limited" burdens and "partial" restrictions forever, until collectively they amounted to a de facto prohibition. And this seems to be what smoking's more ferocious opponents have in mind. So why don't they come right out and say it?

How about this: I'll say it. I'll go first. Why don't we ban smoking outright. OK, it's a stupid, fascist, unnecessary, unworkable, historically discredited idea. But what's wrong with it?

Smoking is said to kill 434,000 Americans every year. I know, even rounded off this number seems suspiciously exact--in fact it's the casualty figure for 1988, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--but the pundits and policymakers have stuck with it, and it's probably pretty close to accurate for any given year. 434,000. You may have come across it yourself, if you ever read the editorial page. It's big--it's eight Vietnams, as George Will once pointed out, with one Vietnam equaling all the Americans who died in the course of the war. But this is every year. Or how about: a Vietnam, a Korea, a World War II, and a World War I (battle deaths only) every year? Or try this: total up the annual deaths attributable to accidents, homicides, suicides, AIDS, alcohol, and all other drugs combined. Then double it.

The toll is huge not because cigarettes are invariably deadly. Everybody knows that smoking is a lottery. But there are lots of prizes, and lots and lots of players. Even now, one in four adult Americans smokes. That's 46 million people. That's what, after a generation of almost uninterrupted progress, the smoking population has been "reduced" to. And you can't have that many people taking their chances, day in and day out, with bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, the various smoking-induced cancers, and so on, without routine loss of life. Ten to fifteen years of life for the average smoker, which means that the total sacrifice--of living, of irreplaceable human experience--can be expressed in the hundreds of millions of years. Not to mention the even more widespread and unquantifiable waste of youth, health, strength, energy, optimism. And money. It may be crass to mention it in this context, but one estimate puts the annual health care and lost productivity costs of smoking at $65 billion, or $3 for every pack sold.

I don't want to bludgeon you with numbers--they don't really convey anything anyway, I know that. But no discussion of what is justified, or even what is practical in the effort to eliminate smoking should begin without some attempt to comprehend the sheer scale of the destruction caused by cigarettes. Otherwise, we're like generals who get their views of the carnage of war from aerial photographs and color-coded maps.

But it isn't easy. The numbers are difficult. The units--"lives," "deaths"--aren't fully fungible. The carnage is scattered and slow. Maybe one way to grasp the enormity of the sacrifice involved is to think of it literally in those terms--as a sacrifice. Or, if you prefer the contemporary secular equivalent, as a bargain. People aren't giving their lives and health away, they're trading them in; but for what, exactly? What is all the spending and sickening and choking and dying for? No one asks why drinkers drink: drunkenness is a tangible, self-evident benefit. But why are 46 million Americans so eager to get smoken?

It tastes good.

OK. That's good. I mean, pretty good. I mean it would be pretty good, if it were true. In fact, it's just a figure of speech. If people took tobacco in suppository form, they would say that it "sat" good.

It . . . satisfies.

Now we're talking. It can be deliciously satisfying to be relieved of a pressing need. What smokers are "enjoying" is not so much a taste treat as a series of small-scale rescues: faint distresses, sudden reliefs, dull raptures. All day long. And it does feel good. The same way if you've been banging your head against the wall all day it feels good when you stop.

It's not just physical.

I know. I remember: the feeling of self-possession smoking gave me. Of--collectedness, if that's a word. The way it marked time, enforced stillness, encouraged lingering contemplation. The many performance opportunities it afforded--to express kinship or detachment, to master paraphernalia, to set small fires. These things were good, and real. But you get something like them with any long habit, any familiar groove, any intimacy or skill with particular objects or routines. What makes smoking different from, say, carrying worry beads is not something in the cigarettes themselves, but in the mystique that surrounds them.

Which is to say . . .

(Cue the theme from The Magnificent Seven)

The hype. And not just the deliberate hype--the $4 billion in top-down promotion that the tobacco companies budget for every year. This hype is more pervasive than that, at once more delicate and more durable, not so much a collection of billboards as a cult. Smoking, after all, means something. When you light a cigarette, myths rise out, whiffs of old movies and musk, stubbly kisses, wicked laughter, racy suggestions, thrilling music, God knows what else. I'm not here to sort it out. Only to point out that if it weren't for addiction, familiarity, and this ancient, massive, indescribably funky cloud of hype, the custom of smoking would dissolve into . . . smoke.

Not that it's any of my business. Assuming smokers are of age (they're not, of course) and don't blow it in my face (they do, but never mind), what can I legitimately say? That they're pursuing happiness wrong? I'm not saying cigarettes should be banned simply because their costs vastly outweigh their benefits. I just want to underscore how unconscionably expensive they are. But before I leave the subject, it's worth noting that "unconscionability" is a very old Anglo-American legal doctrine that denies recognition to certain bargains that are simply too one-sided, too unjust, too nonsensical to be enforced. And since in the bargain smokers have made they often pay with their lives as well as their money, we may be well beyond the unconscionable here, and into the realm of the obscene. Go back and read the annual casualty figures--it's the Battle of the Marne, over and over again, year in and year out! Only now it's being fought not for Paris but for nothing!

Another surprising imbalance--another discrepancy in scale, really--emerges when we contrast the grisly, life-size havoc that smoking causes with the dinky measures we take to limit and discourage it. Here our perspective is often distorted by the dramatic controversies of the moment. Sure, we fence smokers in like stockyard animals. We tax them till they squeak. We reduce them, in some cases, to the humiliating necessity of switching to brands with names like Scotch Buy and Value Sense. But this is a substance that kills more than a thousand Americans every day--and it's available in vending machines! The fretting and griping of smokers themselves is understandable. They feel threatened, I'm sure. But our 30 years "war" on smoking has never amounted to much more than a feeble, underfunded, almost token defense, relying heavily on a comprehensive system of health warnings that--when they're not serving as mere disclaimers or props for public complacency--work like fixed fortifications, repelling only those who don't bother to go around them.

Still, aren't things going pretty well all the same? A generation ago, two in five adults smoked; now it's only one in four. However dinky our antismoking measures may be, that's real progress. The dwindling remnant of American smokers seems to be headed the way of the buffalo. So why rush them?

One reason is so obvious that it's often overlooked. The smoking "population" isn't a stable demographic entity at all, but a continually shifting mix of individuals--people taking turns. It's nice that the ratio of smokers to nonsmokers has generally fallen each year since 1965, when 42 percent of the adult populace were smokers. But smoking itself--I believe I mentioned this--kills or helps kill a hell of a lot of people in the course of any given year. Many other smokers simply die, for whatever reason. Still others quit. Quite a few veterans need replacing, in other words. So quite a few rookies get the call. It's been estimated that tobacco companies have to attract about 1.35 million new customers a year just to make up for all the old ones who check out in one way or another. Even in a bad year, they may pick up a million or so. Which means that in human terms, at least at the margins, "progress" in eliminating smoking may mean one person quitting, another expiring in agony, and a third just getting the hang of the respiration francaise.

That third person, by the way, is almost certainly under 18. Ninety percent of new smokers are. In fact, unreflective teens play an indispensable role in the "churning" process I'm describing. It isn't just that they're gullible, that they'll take the barbed hook when nobody else will. It goes beyond that. Smoking and adolescence seem to interact somehow in our culture's larger delusional system. Kids bring their youth to smoking, continually renewing it, making it young again; in return, it seasons them. How else could you explain something like my own early experiments with cherry-flavored cigarillos? Sure, nothing goes better with apple wine. But I was at an age when a stinking twist of additive-soaked tobacco wrapped in brown paper could transform me into a kind of pale, stubble-free Irish bandito. I wasn't a pretty sight at a party. If you ever gave me a ride home in your car, you must have regretted it for a week. But I was trying to conjure up my own manhood, and for that you need smelly, dangerous props.

The problem with sitting around waiting for smoking to burn itself out, then, is that it's always finding new fuel among the judgmentally impaired. Even when the fire as a whole is getting smaller, it never stops moving, spreading, catching on. And those it leaves behind--people like me--are never as good as new. There is always some charring, some stunting. This is another example of an obvious truth that is subtly distorted by statistics, which divide the world into static bright-line categories like "smokers" and "nonsmokers." What about ex-smokers? What about nail-biters, spit-swallowers, clock-watchers, wrecks? What about somebody who--seven years after toileting the last of his Merits--still feels at times like he's doing everything left-handed? My lungs are good now, my sense of smell is most of the way back, I don't mean to complain--but do you know that I actually have a brand of toothpicks? That I sometimes go from store to store, looking for the ones with the "Sure-Grip Center"?

This is, of course, a trivial sort of "suffering"--it's better than, say, colon cancer, a disease that I understand I'm still at some increased risk for, even after quitting. But it's just as unnecessary. And if you're contented, as most people seem to be, with the gradual approach--with "evolving away" from smoking--then you must be willing to put up with an appalling amount of both kinds of suffering, the trivial and the tragic, in the decades to come.

Maybe you're assuming it won't affect anybody you know. Are you perhaps--Professor Marvel never guesses--white? Well-educated? Comfortably fixed? If so, it's true that more and more of the nation's smoking is being done by people you don't know. Lots of research has confirmed the widespread impression that smoking is becoming a badge of second-class citizenship. The poor and poorly educated, for instance, "initiate" earlier and take longer to quit. According to one projection, by the year 2000 fewer than 10 percent of college grads will smoke, compared with at least 30 percent of those who haven't been to college. Smoking is also more common among Americans of African descent--and some say that's no accident. Efforts to market "Uptown," the "black cigarette," may have fizzled back in 1990, but many still contend that splashy, aggressive point-of-sale and billboard advertising for cigarettes is more prevalent in black neighborhoods than elsewhere. "They used to make us pick it," says one antismoking ad that began appearing on New York subways recently. "Now they want us to smoke it."

I don't mean to be divisive. I'm just suggesting that if cigarette addiction is a problem that doesn't seem very urgent to you--if as far as you can see it's taking care of itself--then maybe you ought to get out more. There may be plenty of arguments in favor of continuing the peaceful, plodding approach that measures progress in terms of decades and generations. But somebody is going to have to pay the price for it, between now and the final dying-out.

Assuming smoking in America does die out, eventually. Is that a solid lock?

This seems like a stupid question, I know. Even the industry seems to concede the point. Why else would Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco, and other tobacco giants be frantically snapping up and rehauling production facilities all over Eastern Europe? Even at currently depressed consumption levels, the former Warsaw Pact countries outsmoke the U.S. by 40 percent; potential demand is thought to be vastly greater. And there may be other worlds to conquer--the "opening" of China, some say, is next. But from our perspective, in this country, what else could this be but a retreat, a tacit acknowledgment that the end is near around here?

Still, who knows? Look at "spit" tobacco. Twenty years ago, the always disgusting, often fatal and/or disfiguring practice of putting it right in your mouth--either chewing a plug or "dipping" a pinch--was literally dying: men over 50 were the biggest consumers of smokeless tobacco products. So now that a large proportion of those same consumers are either gone altogether or missing lower jaws, is smokeless dead? Quite frankly, I can't even begin to explain this one, but the answer is no. It's thriving. Of the nation's ten million spitters, almost a third are now under 21. One in five high school males spits--and the figure is much higher in the south and west. Nationally, the average initiation age is now nine and a half.

If you think smokeful tobacco doesn't have similar comeback potential, consider this: a CDC poll of 43,000 adults revealed that 25 consecutive years of progress in reducing the overall percentage of adult smokers was interrupted in 1991, perhaps reversed. Neither the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health nor anyone else had expected this. Among certain groups, including blacks and women, smoking had made unmistakable gains. In smaller telephone surveys subsequently undertaken for Prevention magazine, the number of self-described smokers jumped five percentage points (from 25 percent to 30 percent) between 1991 and 1992. A study just released by the University of Michigan reports a significant increase in smoking rates among teens. And the New York Times, citing discouraging data on diet and exercise as well as smoking, speculated recently that Americans, having already reached "the limits of self-denial," may now be executing a massive sweep back toward "self-indulgence."

Or maybe it's just a blip. The point is that there are no certainties. Remember, at the end of the last century, how everyone was confidently predicting the final abandonment of war as a way of settling disputes between nations? A similar mixture of short-sightedness and naivete may be at work here. People have been smoking cigarettes in this hemisphere since the Aztecs were in charge. There are good reasons why they ought to stop now--but this is an area of life where reason has never figured very largely. How can we say what a few decades more of compromising and cajoling and cutting back will do?

I could see smoking going on forever. Or at least going on and on and on. Almost as though the unbroken chain of smokers, running all through modern history, were really just one smoker, getting out of bed every morning, picking up where he left off the night before. Not because he decides to, so much. He just--reaches for the pack. And it's always there, right by the bed.

Unless it isn't.

What if some generation woke up to find their cigarettes gone? Or at least no longer cheap, abundant, and available wherever anything is sold? What if they had to scramble to get them, and pay through the nose, and consort with criminals, and hide the whole sordid business from their families? What if there were no such thing as "designated smoking areas"--if public smoking were simply out of the question? What if, to do a thing as simple as lighting up, smokers had to wait for the kids to go to bed, or slip down the basement stairs and pretend to be fooling with their furnace filters, or slink away on some pretext to dark, joyless, no doubt poorly ventilated dens of iniquity, full of jumpy, irritable, self-despising creatures like themselves? In short, what if we were to try prohibition one more time, only with tobacco? Would it be as bad as sequels usually are? Would it be as bad as Exorcist II: The Heretic?

I don't think so. In fact, I think it would work.

Everybody hear that? In back? I--think--it--would--work. Of course, I'm aware that the results of the first Prohibition were not encouraging. And that we haven't done so well eliminating the other drugs we've "prohibited" up to now. And that the police are sort of busy these days. And that organized crime is not hurting for revenue. I'm even aware that outright cigarette bans have been tried in this country before. At one time or another in the period between 1893 and 1927 a total of 14 mostly rural, western, pipe-and-cigar-smoking states--places where cigarettes, still rare, were associated with filthy eastern cities and despised foreigners--put anticigarette laws on the books. Some of those laws prohibited everything you can possibly prohibit--manufacture, sale, advertising, possession, use--and punished violators with stiff fines; but the spreading popularity of cigarettes after World War I swept them all away, and they appear to have had no lasting effect. Nor, for that matter, have the harsher measures employed in less liberal countries. So diabolical is smoking's allure that, in its five centuries of recorded history, people have risked excommunication for it, and flogging and torture and exile and impalement and decapitation and (you won't believe this one) nose-piercing. Where has all this coercion got us? Why should we even think about trying again?

How about: for the sake of the children.

Will that do for now? It isn't the only possible philosophical/moral justification for a coercive ban on cigarettes--the thoughtful reader should have no trouble coming up with others, some of them implicit in what I've written already. Even without regard to any obligation we may have toward the future, it's possible for a product--especially an addictive product--to be inherently so worthless and destructive that it's immoral not to ban it. We make this kind of judgment all the time, without any qualms. In fact, if tobacco were just being introduced now, and all of its properties were understood, nobody would be suggesting that we discourage its use through public education or burden it with taxes or anything like that. We'd simply squelch it; it would never see the light of day. The fact that it's too late for this--that people already smoke, that they've "always" smoked--makes some difference, sure. But if considerations like that were decisive, your corner bar would still be stocking absinthe, the brain-destroying wormwood-and-anise-based liqueur that at one time people had "always" drunk.

No, if Prohibition II is such a bad idea, it isn't because justification is lacking. Banning a toxic substance, a deadly airborne pollutant, and a habit-forming drug--in one!--can't be wrong. What it just might be is stupid. There's a big difference.

Prohibition I, I'll grant you, was stupid on a scale so titanic that even now, 60 years after its repeal, it still stands as a reproach to incautious idealists and simpleminded reformers everywhere. It's one of the few episodes in American history that can legitimately be reduced to a "lesson." Some revisionist historians have been doing their best to undermine the lesson of Prohibition lately--claiming, for instance, that it "worked," and pointing to declines in various statistical measures of alcohol-related suffering during the years 1920 to 1933, when the 18th Amendment was in effect. But let's face it, revisionist historians are getting to be like expert witnesses--you can find one to testify to almost anything nowadays. It's safer and more sensible to stick with the mainstream view: Prohibition sucked. People continued to drink, though less openly, and their drink money bankrolled the rise of a violent new class of criminal middlemen. Law enforcement authorities everywhere were cowed and corrupted. Decent people became hypocrites. Youth learned contempt for established institutions. We had all this sophomore year.

And the lesson again? Something about the futility of trying to "legislate morality"? That's the somewhat careless popular formulation. Recently, it's been much on the lips of advocates of drug decriminalization, who point to eerie parallels between the disastrous Great Experiment and our current "war" on cocaine and other illicit drugs. They have a point; there are parallels. But that's because of the crucial similarities between alcohol and the drugs we've been trying to suppress. It has nothing to do with "legislating morality"--if the phrase means anything at all, we ignore it all the time. A clearer and more accurate statement of what Prohibition taught us would be: If something is fun, apparently victimless, and easy to enjoy in secret binges, you're going to have a hard time putting a stop to it with laws alone. Especially on weekends.

I'm not sure I see how that narrower lesson would apply to a tobacco prohibition. Tobacco simply doesn't belong to the family of mind-altering recreational binge drugs, of which alcohol is the most prominent member. If your supply of alcohol is irregular and your routine drinking opportunities restricted--if, beyond the occasional backstairs nip, anything resembling a party has to wait, sometimes for days--well, that's OK. You can keep that up. In fact, you can sustain quite a little drinking "problem" under those conditions. Your consumption was probably going to be intermittent anyway. Truly steady drinkers are rare--and they don't live long, either.

But smoking, real smoking, is less like drinking than it is like--well, breathing. There's no cycle of riot and recovery, no rinse and repeat. It's a way of dreary life. Obviously, in a tobacco prohibition, there would be no practical way of preventing late-night roadhouse blowouts. And if the law--by interrupting routine access, driving the market underground, requiring at least the pretense of compliance as the price of respectability--made it impossible to consume tobacco in any quantity except in secret binges, I'm not saying smokers wouldn't be game, for a while. You can binge on smoke. You get dizzy, and, if you're not careful, sick. In that sense, it's just like drinking. But you don't sing "Hang on Sloopy" all the way home. It's not fun. It doesn't simplify anything. It doesn't do jack, really, except satisfy its own craving for itself.

What about that craving, though? Maybe you think a tobacco prohibition would spawn the equivalent of opium dens--where wretches would loll around smoking quietly for weeks on end, till they had to be carried out by the management? It's possible. But again, I think we're mixing our drugs up. No matter how much you may need cigarettes, getting hold of them doesn't solve all your problems, the way opium does for an addict. You really can't give up your normal life for tobacco, because it won't give you oblivion in return.

Of course, there's always home. No matter how savagely we may legislate against cigarette smoking, we're never going to have house-to-house searches. Tobacco could become a stay-at-home drug, like pot. Smokers could lead apparently normal, upright public lives. Except that every night after work they would scurry home, draw the curtains, and smoke. But this only points to another difficulty. What if, like marijuana, decent tobacco ended up costing, say, two or three hundred bucks an ounce? What if the trouble and expense of getting hold of it were such that, God forbid, it had to be conserved? That would figure, wouldn't it? They're similar plants (they actually share a genus!) and would be subject to similar laws, both criminal and economic. The fact that large-scale tobacco cultivation would remain legal elsewhere would probably help to drive down costs in this country. But there would still be all the expenses and inefficiencies associated with smuggling, bribery, and day-to-day law evasion; comparison-shopping would be difficult and perhaps dangerous; and the supply would vary so grossly in quality, and be subject to such frequent and mysterious interruptions, that buyers would soon find themselves paying a premium for reliable access to "the good stuff." All of which suggests that smoking as we know it--that is, mindless, compulsive, ashtray-choking, carton-by-carton consumption--could well come to an end. In its place we could see hoarding. And savoring. And sharing. Lighting a cigarette might become an occasion, with everybody crowding around for a taste. And the talk returning, again and again, wistfully, to the old days, when creatures like me--three-pack-a-day men--roamed the earth.

But all this concerns the dark corners, where prohibitions never reach. What about in the straight, law-abiding, public sphere of life, where people spend most of their time--and smokers fill most of their ashtrays? How would a tobacco prohibition work out there?

Fine, thanks. And that may be all that counts. This is a simple point; its significance is easy to miss. If the law made tobacco, in effect, a kind of "dope," people wouldn't stop smoking it on that account, any more than they have stopped smoking other kinds of dope. But they would smoke it only at times, in places, and under circumstances that allow dope-smoking. Which, when you think about it, are pretty limited. Go through your day--see how many ten-minute secret dope breaks you can fit in. Most people would be hard-pressed to come up with more than a few suitable slots on an average weekday. Even a modest, pack-a-day habit would call for 20. That's a lot of trips to the can.

Not that it would be as easy as sneaking off to the can, either. Or the lobby or the fire escape or the service alley or the parking garage. There are no-smoking rules in lots of places nowadays, and plenty of smokers find ways around them. But evading a tobacco prohibition would be different. For one thing, the range of risks involved would be much more serious, running from mild embarrassment ("So that's what that smell is!") through disgrace ("Step into my office, please") all the way up to ruin ("May I see some identification?"), depending on who happened to walk in. And where could you feel safe? It wouldn't be a matter of leaving behind a relatively small, confined area where smoking was proscribed, and ducking out into the larger world where it wasn't. If smoking itself were against the law--if possession were against the law--the larger world would be the last place you'd want to show your face. Which would mean no more joyous bursting through doorways, throwing off petty constraints, feeling the wind stir your hair as you lit up. The world would no longer be your ashtray. And this change would be reflected not only in your habits but in your outlook as well. It would be as though the last open range had been fenced off. Marlboro men would become as mice, clinging to the shadows, sniffing for recesses in the floorboards. Hiding from the light.

And with good reason. It's not hard to foresee the reinforcing effect a tobacco prohibition would have on the already intolerant attitudes of the nonsmoking majority. Even now, with cigarettes extravagantly promoted in the media, as familiar as breath mints, and completely free of the stigma of illegality, smokers feel the weight of public opinion against them. That's the reason it's unusual to find them smoking in elevators or theaters or anywhere else they're not supposed to. It isn't the fear of a fine. (Have you ever even heard of anybody being fined for a smoking violation?) It's the fear of a hostile public.

Under a tobacco prohibition, things could only get worse. It isn't just that busybodies and militants would suddenly have all the might of the criminal justice system behind them--though of course they would; recent "assault" cases brought against smokers, on the theory that smoke itself is an "unwarranted contact," might be just a faint indication of the hellish turn events could take. But everybody's views would be hardening against smoking, not just those of extremists. Studies of "passive smoking"--that is, standing around next to active smoking--suggest that it produces about 2,500 fatal cancers per year. This relatively small (and of course disputed) "civilian" casualty figure has caused more outrage in some circles than all the enormous losses suffered by smokers, and has contributed to a growing aversion to--and in some cases terror of--smoke among nonsmokers. But imagine the same small risk crudely distorted and magnified by unfamiliarity and ignorance. If cigarette smoke were no longer just another component of the urban atmosphere like bus fumes or Brut, but something unexpected, something strange and illicit, who would go near it without a gas mask? It would be no different from the smoke we know now, but it would smell, unmistakably, like death.

And as for those who inhale smoke deliberately--how sinister and degraded they would begin to look. Almost like junkies shooting up. Living on the margins, cringing from the law, endangering their loved ones, quietly destroying themselves--and not even having any fun doing it--smokers would inevitably begin to absorb some small part of the contempt we feel for other helpless addicts. They would have, I suppose, their own outlaw subculture, and that would be some consolation. Pinkie rings. Big lighters. Lotsa java. Squares wouldn't get it. But then, we wouldn't much want to. One glance at a squirming, lip-licking, shifty-eyed smoke junkie trapped in the open would tell us all we needed to know. No drug could be worth that sort of sacrifice. And--assuming we tried a puff sometime or other, just to see what it was like--certainly not this one.

Actually, no one would be in a better position to see that than smokers themselves. And the more the expenses, inconveniences, risks, and humiliations associated with smoking added up, the more smokers could be expected to get the point. They are at least intermittently rational creatures, after all. When taxes on Canadian cigarettes shot up from about 45 cents to the equivalent of $3.27 a pack in little more than a decade, consumption dropped 38 percent. Granted, dramatic, tax-stimulated reductions like that tend to be temporary. Worse, as Canada is now discovering, when you allow smoking but try to crush it with taxes, smokers simply turn to tax-free sources, like the back of somebody's truck. Even so, the point remains: most smokers aren't prepared to pay any price for cigarettes. In the face of a tobacco prohibition, some would resist. But some would surrender.

Casual or "amateur" smokers, for instance, could be expected to give in almost at once. Nobody would smoke who didn't need to--just to look sophisticated, or to call attention to their graceful hands, or for any of those other wispy motives. And nobody would smoke for pleasure--nobody smokes for pleasure now. Tobacco is not its own reward. It's the other way around: lack of tobacco is its own punishment. I'm not saying that this starkly negative form of motivation--addiction alone, stripped of every rationalization and disguise--wouldn't be enough to keep smokers in the fold. It's doing a pretty fair job now. But addictions have to be fed, or they weaken. And a tobacco prohibition, however ineffectual it would be at eliminating smoking overall, could quickly do away with a kind of smoking: namely, the steady, routine, barely conscious kind that sustains the most intense addictions. If you're used to a cigarette every half hour, then an hour's deprivation is, by definition, torture. But if, due to circumstances way beyond your control, you were able to smoke only in small amounts, at long intervals, after paying a fortune to some snotty bike messenger--well, of course you'd writhe like a serpent. For a time. You wouldn't be fit to live with. But the day would come when you'd start to forget just exactly what you were so miserable about.

It would come back to you, of course. It would be hard, most of the time, to think about much of anything else, or to see beyond your next bender. But then, the benders themselves wouldn't live up to your fevered expectations either. You wouldn't be able to suck the smoke down fast enough, and then, too soon, it would all be gone. And you'd have to be careful: no longer accustomed as you once were to smoking at this hectic pace it might actually nauseate you, as though, after all these years, you'd been busted back to beginner, and were learning your smoke rings all over again.

The temptation to capitulate would be overwhelming. Nicotine gum would come in peach, sour apple, cafe au lait. Bowls of government-subsidized Chex mix would turn up in every waiting room. Runaway entitlement programs for reformed smokers--fully covered hypnotherapy and massage benefits, mandatory handball breaks, bouquets of fresh chilled carrot sticks delivered to your home or office by caring professionals--would make it so easy to say those two little words that mean so much. You'd be pretending you'd quit anyway; why not just give in and do it?

Smokers are a perverse bunch, I know that. We shouldn't count too much on appeals to their self-interest, or even their sanity. Still, I'd be surprised if, after a few years of a tobacco prohibition, all but a very hard core of them weren't weaned away. Backsliding would be uncommon. Staying off is always harder than quitting, but nowadays that's due to the sheer pervasiveness of cigarettes more than anything else. When your old brand beckons from the same counter where you get your gum and your newspaper, when every bar or party or long lunch is a potential trap, it's no wonder so many ex-smokers slip up. I did, once. But I think I could have avoided it if I'd had to go looking for cigarettes. Instead they came to me.

Obviously, there would be smokers who would never say die. Maybe a lot of them. But even they would smoke a great deal less, overall. I feel awfully cruel, pointing out this "benefit," knowing the misery it would cause them; but it's a fact. And, passing lightly over their sufferings, what about the next generation? Remember, the whole point of a tobacco prohibition would be not to dam up smoking completely but to pose a big, fat, tangled obstacle to it. If veteran smokers, with king-size addictions built up over years of cheap, mindless, hassle-free smoking, were still motivated enough to go around--then so be it, we'd have lost them. But the smokers of tomorrow would never get through.

It's not so much that they couldn't get a decent start. As a rule, juveniles love nothing better than evading prohibitions, especially sensible drug prohibitions. It's true that experimental, beginner-style smoking under a tobacco prohibition would entail a whole lot more trouble and expense for the same flimsy reasons, with no giggly or mind-bending payoff to show for it. Alcohol experimentation would make more sense. Helium experimentation would make more sense--but you can't rely too much on sense with kids. If smoking were more strictly forbidden to them than it is now, they might just find it that much more alluring.

But it takes more than a little smoke to make a smoker. It takes, frankly, a lot of smoke. People who indulge the wayward impulse at parties, bum from friends, strike poses when they exhale--they may be on their way to perdition. But they're not there yet. And if something were to prevent them, as a practical matter, from taking the next step and incorporating smoking into their daylight routines, then they'd never get there. Under a tobacco prohibition, the training regimen that enables young cigarette habits to grow big and strong--not occasional, violent heavy-lifting but lots and lots and lots of reps--would no longer be possible for anyone. So the old addictions would die out--some immediately, some over time, but all, surely, with the deaths of the addicts themselves. And the new addictions, without exception, would be stillborn. Which would mean we'd reached the millennium.

If you close your eyes you can almost feel it now--the rapture.

Am I seriously proposing this? I don't know. That may sound like the punch line of a very long shaggy-dog story, but it's true. There are aspects of the prohibition approach--like the ugly application of force it would require--that give me pause. And of course I'm aware of the practical/political implausibility of it all. If there are any practical/political people still reading this, they're not, I think, taking notes.

And yet, if what I've written above is true, a tobacco prohibition could not fail. It would be inexorably succeeding just when it appeared to be failing--just when it was being denounced as a fiasco. Even during the chaotic early stages--with "seizure and interdiction" and "going after the kingpins" and "zero tolerance" and all the other futile drug-war strategies coming up short and everybody everywhere calling for repeal--the law would be working just the same. Not all at once, the way people expect. You can't just "cut off" a centuries-old institution like that. But if you get a decent grip and settle down to wait, you can choke the life out of it.

This image--the grip around the windpipe--is probably apt, unfortunately. But the force that would be necessary to administer a tobacco prohibition would gradually diminish. In time, conventional, top-down enforcement might be completely unnecessary. There's no basic, biological urge to inhale smoke. It's a custom, like taking snuff. When ordinary people are no longer accustomed to it, it will be a dead custom, and like all dead customs, faintly ridiculous. When the days of overt smoking are distant enough, images that presently have for us an almost iconic potency--Bogey, say, exhaling in our faces--will begin to seem quaint. Perhaps even laughable. To get the effect now, you'd almost have to picture him with lace cuffs and a powdered wig. With one of those beauty marks on his cheek.

The rarely encountered cigarette wouldn't just be funny and antiquated. It would be disgusting. Like a wet stogie. As a matter of fact, if you want an idea of how swiftly the public's perception of a declining drug can change, consider cigars. Once more common than cigarettes--sold by the box and smoked routinely--cigars now have only a very insecure footing in our culture, and most people recoil violently at the sight of one being lit up. Perhaps because of their size and shape--and the fact that most women are grossed out by them--cigars still benefit from a precarious association with masculine celebrations, with preening victors and proud papas and "putting on the dog." Sort of like champagne. But that can't last. Champagne is bubbly and sweet and nice, even if you've never tasted it before. In order to enjoy a noxious "treat" like a cigar--or even just to keep from being sick--you have to be used to it. And nowadays nobody is. So the honorary-cigar tradition is dying out too. A few years ago, when I first became a father, I was as proud and happy as any man, ever, in the history of the world. Yet it never occurred to me to inflict cigars on my friends. And if it had, they would have taken them home, saved them for a while in their desk drawers, and eventually thrown them away.

The same irreversible process could put cigarette smoking behind us forever. But it needs a kick start. One radical break with the past. And that's not the way we usually do things. When preachers promise us the millennium, when revolutionaries call for that one radical break, we usually nod and back away slowly. The prospect of a climactic struggle with evil may be thrilling, but we don't really like to be thrilled. We like compromise. We like sweet reason. And we'll settle, if necessary, for peaceful coexistence.

Maybe there's wisdom in this. There must be, most of the time. But accommodations like these can outlive their usefulness. And compromises, after lingering too long, can begin to stink. I'm starting to think that our compromise with smoking has reached that stage. If you still think it's defensible--or at least preferable to a melee--I can understand that. But you can't pretend to be dismayed when you find your own kids smoking. That was part of the compromise too.

My son is three now. He scares me. He puts my toothpicks in his mouth--he's "being a papa," he says. He climbs things. He gets a mysterious fever that lasts for two weeks. At the HMO, they do a urine test, throat culture, blood work; an extra nurse comes to hold him down. It's "a fever of unknown origin," the doctor says. The only thing to do is whittle away at the differential diagnoses, eliminating them one by one: cytomegalovirus, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, cat-scratch fever. And something else--the doctor's being evasive now--some "malignant process." I don't ask about that one.

In the X-ray room, I have to let go and stand back from the machine. X ray. It begins with X. It's one of those flash-card words. I keep talking across the space between us--my son is uncharacteristically meek with his shirt off--and while I'm talking, I feel it. Just a twinge. It's that same old craving--so faint it's almost unrecognizable, after seven years. But deep, too, if you know what I mean, like the tidal pull of a distant moon.

This has got to stop somewhere.

My son has mono, it turns out. He's fine. It's a virus. It cycles through in a few weeks, and then it's--not gone, exactly. Contained by antibodies. Like my smoking. I didn't hit any convenience stores on the way home that day, or any day since. I probably chewed a little more gum. But the experience left me . . . chastened. I guess that's the word I want.

Or perhaps the word is pissed. What I'm thinking now is that this has got to stop--to be stopped--somewhere. This indiscriminately destructive, barely containable, genielike thing has been roaming around free for centuries too long. It got hold of my father and it got me too. Isn't it worth some kind of a fight to keep it away from my son? For a goal like that, wouldn't we be willing to go through a period of crisis? Couldn't we weather a little excitement?

That's what William Lloyd Garrison called it. "Slavery will not be overthrown without excitement," he said. "A most tremendous excitement." There's a thought--and a mood--to savor. And while you're at it, there's a harder, more intricate, but perhaps ultimately more illuminating historical analogy than the one to Prohibition: Abolition.

Another peculiar institution. Another difficult passage. Another costly struggle, whose moral and practical necessity, in hindsight, no one doubts. Remember?

I'm excited already.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Jeff Heller.

Add a comment