Enforced Abstinence


"Two college students who were smoking cigarettes on a Salt Lake City street were attacked by a gang of 20 teen-agers wielding chains, bricks, and pepper spray." Thus began a newspaper article that appeared in my fax machine the other day.

The assailants were identified as "Straight Edgers," who "do not drink, smoke or take drugs" and "are known to enforce their moral standards upon strangers by beating them severely." The article said "it is not uncommon behavior for them to cruise around looking for cigarette smokers or beer drinkers to harass."

I thought this story must be a joke or a hoax, but a newspaper database search convinced me that Straight Edgers really do exist. The Salt Lake City variety, it turns out, is a violent offshoot of what The Buffalo News calls "punk rock's bastard child." Straight Edgers like the punk look and sound but eschew psychoactive substances. Many are vegetarians.

In Salt Lake City, these drug-free vegetarians mean business. "They'll get four or five of them in a car to look for someone smoking cigarettes," says a local police sergeant, "and then they'll beat the tar out of them." It's not clear whether meat eaters can expect similar treatment, but Straight Edgers have been linked to animal-rights sabotage, including a raid on a mink farm and a fire at a McDonald's.

The state of Florida seems to be taking a cue from the Straight Edgers. Having extracted $11.3 billion from smokers by suing the tobacco industry, it is using some of that money to pay for ads that encourage teenagers to be militant anti-smokers. One ad that ran in leading newspapers shows a girl in a black ski mask reading from a ransom note: "We may be hostages. But today, we're the ones making the demands."

The demands include "a written explanation from companies that use an advertising agency that also creates tobacco advertising" and "equal space for anti-tobacco messages from magazines that accept some of the $13 million spent every day on tobacco ads." The masked teenager explains, "We're truth. A generation that's tired of being lied to about tobacco….Tired of being a target."

Peter Mitchell, the Florida official charged with overseeing the ad campaign, explained that "the aim here is to make rebelling against manipulation as cool as smoking." Daryl Taberski, lead singer of the Straight Edge band Snapcase, expressed a similar idea in an interview with The Buffalo News: "In a way, straight edge is true rebellion, because the norm now is to drink and smoke."

To be sure, neither Mitchell nor Taberski is handing out chains and bricks. But this abstinence with an attitude does not exactly encourage tolerance. Having determined that a drug-free existence is the one best way, the Straight Edgers of Salt Lake City are taking what they consider to be the next logical step: whipping people into line. Literally.

Scary as these these puritanical thugs are, at least their approach is honest and direct. They do not talk about "the public health." They do not claim to be stopping an epidemic or curing a disease. They see people doing wrong, and they administer punishment.

Contrast that with the way the government treats smokers. On the one hand, they are victims of the evil tobacco companies, lured into a deadly, inescapable trap at a tender age. They deserve our sympathy and support.

On the other hand, they are murderers and parasites, threatening our lives with secondhand smoke and raiding our wallets when they get sick. They deserve to be fined, hectored, vilified, and ostracized.

Or consider the "war on drugs." Barry McCaffrey, who directs the Office of National Drug Control Policy, doesn't like that term. He says suppressing drug use is more like treating a cancer than waging a war.

Of course, McCaffrey still thinks that people who possess politically incorrect chemicals should be arrested, humiliated, imprisoned, and divested of their property. Presumably, though, it should be done with compassion.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of New York State's Rockefeller drug laws, which established draconian penalties that became a model for the nation. Under these laws, a first-time offender convicted of possessing four ounces or selling two ounces of cocaine or heroin faces a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life–the same as the penalty for murder. Compared to that, the Straight Edgers' drug policy seems positively enlightened.