Ifs and Butts

How smoking became the target of unfiltered malice


How smoking became the target of unfiltered malice

"Smoking is an intrinsic part of modern culture," writes The Wall Street Journal's Tara Parker-Pope in her new book, Cigarettes: Anatomy of an Industry from Seed to Smoke (New Press, $24.95). "For 500 years, smokers and tobacco makers have risked torture and even death at the hands of tobacco's enemies, so it's unlikely that a bunch of lawyers and politicians and the looming threat of deadly disease will fell either the industry or the habit. When the smoke clears from the Tobacco Wars, the last man (or woman) standing may well be a smoker with a cigarette in his (or her) hands."

Parker-Pope deserves credit, because in a discussion as saturated with malice and falsehood as the cigarette debate, expressing even a banal truth requires courage. But don't let the passage fool you: This is the last paragraph of her book, and there is precious little like it in the 167 pages that precede it. It's an afterthought. Had it been the first paragraph, had it been the premise from which she proceeded, Parker-Pope's short, mainstream inquiry into smoking as a practice and as a business in "modern culture" might have staked out some  more adventurous journalistic territory.

Assume, as five centuries of evidence amply demonstrates, that many people use tobacco because they want to, that they smoked long before there was an industry to beguile them into it, and that they pursued the practice in the face of potential execution (under certain Ottoman sultans, for example), never mind exorbitant taxation. What then is the most interesting contemporary tobacco business story? Big Tobacco settlements? Hardly. The most interesting—because the most revealing—story involves the immense undercover transfer of cigarettes from (relatively) low-tax regions to high-tax localities.

There is now an exploding black market in smoke all over the world. Europe's Chunnel, for example, is a regular Tobacco Road, delivering more-affordable smokes (and alcohol) to Britain's absurdly overtaxed customers. So much of Canada's tobacco business has shifted to the black market that our neighbor actually lowered its taxes to recoup the loss to its treasury. New Jersey's cops have stopped so many trucks bringing illegal cigarettes north from Virginia and North Carolina that the state has had to build warehouses to contain this "evidence." It is in these warehouses, in the Chunnel, and on the Internet's numerous discount-cigarette sites that the new business in smoke confronts the current prohibitionist culture, and demonstrates which will eventually prevail.

Assume, with Parker-Pope, that smoking is an intrinsic part of the culture. What, then, is the most compelling contemporary prohibitionist story? Big Tobacco's whistleblowers? Not remotely. The most compelling—because the most revealing—such story involves prohibitionism's unconcealed malice. Not content with peddling highly questionable numbers concerning second-hand smoke and medical costs, anti-smoking extremists freely libel their critics as paid industry propagandists.

Not content with criticizing tobacco ads, they have airbrushed cigarettes out of the very mouths of the musicians (Robert Johnson) and artists (Jackson Pollock) on our postage stamps, infusing two-bit Stalinism into American life. Not content with having driven smokers from their workplaces into the street, they now wish to disperse them along the sidewalks.

Not content with having engineered, by means of the recent settlement, an enormous wealth transfer from the lower-middle class to the litigation class, some prohibitionists now seek to charge smokers a deposit on butts, others are seeking ways to prevent public employees from smoking in their homes, and a few elected lunatics are attempting to prohibit smoking in any public place.

But the most striking result of prohibitionist malice is cultural: the establishment of a nonsmoking identity that, just a decade ago, did not exist. People who dislike smoke, much less those made ill by it, deserve consideration. Early attempts to create smoke-free spaces were not unreasonable. But the EPA's secondhand smoke findings—currently under litigation—ended what had been a dispersed and self-organizing effort by people to accommodate one another, and set in motion a prohibitionist juggernaut. Smoking cops, working undercover, now trawl California's bars, while those bars have responded with phone trees to warn one another, exactly the way speakeasies did during alcohol prohibition.

Where authority goes, collaborators follow with glee. Thus we have experienced the rise of a nonsmoking enforcer class—Christopher Hitchens calls them "moral cretins"—of hectors and informers, people who cannot abide the presence of smokers even if they must use binoculars to find them. The most outstanding feature of the new virtue-mongers is their pretense to a painfully exquisite sensibility. Surely not since Edgar Allan Poe created the preposterous Roderick Usher, who had to conceal himself in the falling family manse lest his delicate senses be deranged by humanity's sights and smells, have we seen such exquisiteness abroad. Americans can't walk past a knot of smokers without fainting? Who's kidding whom? The continuing efforts to manipulate smokers have little or nothing to do with health, but everything to do with malice impersonating its twin, virtue.

Assume, finally, that when this crusade eventually ends, the last person standing will be smoking. That's what Parker-Pope suggests. What will be the most interesting thing about that smoker? That he or she is an addicted, weak-willed degenerate in the occult thrall of ads? No. The most interesting thing—because it is true—is that smokers smoke because they get something out of tobacco's psychoactive ingredients, and are always balancing those benefits against the well-known risks.

In fact, Parker-Pope actually recognizes this. She has mined David Krogh's excellent 1991 book, Smoking: The Artificial Passion, and reports its various findings: that smoking can be either calming or intensifying, that it can increase productivity, that it can help generate a more relaxed environment (for pleasure or for work). Indeed, Parker-Pope is so taken by this sort of information that she singles out Krogh's work as "the most extraordinary book I came across in my research." (She also came across Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum's indispensable For Your Own Good, which she at least references.)

In other words, Parker-Pope recognizes the futility of this crusade, and the kind of information that would make the current debate sensible. Hers is not a bad book, but it could have been a better one if only she'd written it backwards.