Jackson Doughart
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If you've got 'em, smoke 'em
On the social stigma of smoking

The Cadre, 23 March 2012

We often hear the phrase “war on drugs” from proponents of marijuana legalization, especially as it relates to the use of our prison system to punish drug users. The governing Conservative Party, whose 2011 election campaign promised firm action in matters of law and order, has tabled the omnibus C-10 crime bill, which aims to crack down on criminal behavior, including the trafficking of illegal drugs. However, there is another “war” being fought by the ruling classes, this time against tobacco. Though smoking is legal, both the federal and provincial governments invest in campaigns to discourage people from smoking, which have quite radically altered our society’s perception of smokers.

While smoking tobacco was once seen as fashionable, research into the health effects of the practice has turned smoking into a social taboo. We have since developed a prejudice of smokers as selfish, irresponsible, and even rude people who are worthy of collective contempt. Further, we feel justified in voicing this prejudgment as a means of elevating our own status as non-smokers.

I do not smoke and cannot claim to have ever been motivated to do so habitually, but I am convinced that our societal taboo on smoking says a lot more about the people doing the stigmatizing than it does about the smokers themselves. I distinctly remember the anti-smoking presentations that I was forced to attend in the public schools of this province, which portrayed both tobacco and its users in an extremely negative light. One teacher of mine even commissioned her 12-year-old students to write letters to their parents, begging them to kick their habit using emotionally-charged language.

This experience quite superbly indoctrinated me into an anti-smoker prejudice. But when I arrived at university and made friends with a handful of nicotine addicts, I realized that they weren’t such bad people after all, and that the information to which I had been subjected was propagandistic. Since, I have recognized the magnitude of our faux pas against smoking, which not only seeks to elicit feelings of guilt from smokers, but also encourages non-smokers to look down upon users.

Our society’s attitude toward the consumption of recreational drugs is laughably inconsistent. In comparison to smokers, we are even more contemptuous of the users of marijuana, even though that narcotic has had a demonstrably lesser effect on the population than has the smoking of cigarettes. Meanwhile, we are very accepting of alcohol consumption, despite the ability of alcohol abuse to destroy entire families — a reality that is plainly obvious to anyone who has been affected by alcoholism.

Of course, no reasonable person would judge all consumers of alcohol by the behaviour of its abusers, but this is exactly what we do in the case of smokers, who are characterized as addicts that have a problem to be resolved. This is a hopeless and childish caricature, as smokers are autonomous persons who are fully cognizant of the consequences of smoking. Regardless of what the rest of us may think about it, we are in no position to shame or harass them about their habit, especially given our permissive attitude toward drinking.

The government’s policy on smoking is even more hypocritical. At present, the state feels perfectly justified in its paternalism toward the users of cannabis, all the while permitting the smoking of tobacco, whose effects have been well-known for decades. In an apparent attempt to protect the population from the horrors of smoking, the state levies substantial taxes on tobacco sales, which is supposed to discourage people from purchasing it. Unsurprisingly, this strategy does not work, as people who have a genuine dependence on cigarettes are undeterred by the augmented prices, which put low-income users further into debt or poverty.

The state’s persistence in pursuing such a counter-intuitive policy demonstrates that taxes on tobacco sales are only a means for the government to make money. If the state really felt strongly about saving us from smoking, it would ban the stuff altogether. This will never happen, though, as the market for tobacco sales is far too lucrative.

We love to congratulate ourselves about being a tolerant society, yet our attitude toward the users of tobacco indicates that this tolerance is a principle in name only. Our stigmatization of cigarette smoking is nothing more than a pitiful way for non-smokers to feel better about themselves and says nothing about their prudence or intelligence. Let’s grow up and leave smokers alone.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com