I’m hoping that my co-blogger will write a counter-p0int to this post, so I’m keeping the title just the way it is.
Because in our family, there is a schism (or maybe just a spectrum): my mother smokes. My sister isn’t bothered by smoking. My father finds it unpleasant.
And I find it completely unacceptable behavior, and cannot believe that the Western world has continued to allow smoking to occur. The notion that smoking is legal actually boggles my mind. And I do not remember a time when I didn’t think smoking was disgusting. As desperately as I wanted to be popular in middle and high school, as much as I was surrounded by cigarettes in college, and as much as I envied the architects (already wayyyy cooler than the urban planners) in grad school when they made an intimate cabal under the pillars, I have never considered smoking.
So all that said, I have become even more militant about smoking. At (SO CLOSE TO) seven months pregnant, I have become an anti-smoking vigilante, going so far as to involuntarily screech at someone yesterday when they blew smoke in my face from their bicycle. It was a reflex, I swear. I stomp behind smokers as I walk to work in the morning and I take a lot of pleasure in farting as I pass smokers (at socloseto seven months pregnant, I can more or less fart on command). They probably can’t smell it but I like to think I’m sticking it to’em, nonetheless.
All of this is a prelude to saying: I think smoking is an urban planning issue. A public health issue, too, but also something that raises fundamental questions about the way we allocate public and private space, and how we direct public resources (for example: in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, there are hordes of employees tidying the cigarette butts from the meticulously maintained gravel.) And the move to outlaw smoking indoors reflects the fact that, while my opinions are more vehement than most, there is general acceptance of the notion that people who smoke impose a cost on those who don’t. And as smokers are increasingly concentrated in public space, they are increasingly imposing a cost on others who want to use that public space.
On the one hand, all of this is increasingly rendered irrelevant as the number of smokers decreases: in California, the percentage of smokers is only 12%, and in the US as a whole, it is down to 18.6%, which is significant because conventional wisdom has been that 20% of people are ‘hardcore’ smokers who cannot be persuaded to quit (according to The New York Times). In the UK, the percentage of smokers was 39% in 1979, but has dropped to 21% today (says Wikipedia). One could argue that my whole rant is moot: smokers are already a marginalised population, right?
I don’t think so. If you smoke, you are not bothered by other people smoking (I assume), even though you are still exposed to the risks of secondhand smoke…and firsthand smoke… But as the population of non-smokers increases, the amount of people who are unfairly exposed to secondhand smoke, who would really like to have a relatively carcinogen-free walk to work, increases. The relative cost that a single smoker imposes on everyone else increases.
In the US, cities around the country have adopted measures to restrict public tobacco consumption. In New York City, a 2011 law means smoking in public parks can result in a $50 fine. Boston Common is smoke-free. Burlington, Vermont has adopted a law requiring all public places to be smoke-free (though not necessarily public streets). And Boulder, Colorado is currently weighing a proposal to make all public space, including cars parked in public space, smoke-free. This is ironic given that the same state decriminalised marijuana about five minutes ago. In the UK, smoking is illegal in pubs and transit hubs, but ‘Please do not smoke here’ signs are roundly and gleefully ignored. Cigarettes are actually cheaper here, and loose tobacco and rolling papers are widely available and much more popular than in the states.
While smoking is decreasing, I don’t think any municipality (save for Boulder – go Boulder) is doing enough to curb smoking. There are a number of things both countries, and any governments (city, county, state) within those countries could do to reduce the prevalence of smoking. Some proposals include:
1. Regulate vapor cigarettes and then make them widely available and subsidised. The idea that they are a ‘gateway drug’ is preposterous and makes me kind of stabby. How many people took up smoking after they just couldn’t get enough of Nicorette? Zero.
2. Tax the crap out of cigarettes. They’re $12 in New York, but I’d be happier if they were $15. Or $20! why not? In the UK, a box of cigarettes is about £7 (which equals about $10.80). This is the only consumer good I can think of that costs less in the UK than it does in the US. For real.
3. Sell cigarettes in a variety of increments. A friend of mine who is trying to quit smoking recently pointed out that though he is down to 2 cigarettes a day (go, friend!), he still buys 20 at a time. And if he buys 20, he’ll smoke 20. In England you can buy them in packs of 10, and I think there are some brands in the US that sell half-packs. But the act of buying things makes you more aware of your consumption, and makes people more aware of how much they’re spending on cigarettes.
4. A halfway policy: make littering cigarette detritus illegal. No more flicking cigarette butts! Someone once said to me, ‘if I lit up a piece of paper and dropped it in the street, that would not be regarded as acceptable.’ But that’s exactly what smokers do, hundreds of thousands of times a day every day (except my mom. she doesn’t do that. Thanks, mom). Littering is not allowed. Let’s start there.
5. Make smoking in public places a fine-able offence. I don’t think smoking should be illegal; I think tobacco and marijuana should both be legal and regulated and expensive and commercially available.
On the other side of the coin, let’s please get rid of DARE and other education programs that have never worked, ever, and use that money elsewhere. Let’s make faux-smoking easier to do, and let’s allow THAT in public places (assuming there’s no health risk to everyone else). And let’s use the money from all the fines I just proposed for a public-health bonanza – I don’t know what that would look like, but I would vote for public transit investments and infrastructure to address food deserts, and possibly health care to marginalised people, who are the most likely to smoke (hell, I would too). I don’t want to criminalize smoking; I just don’t think I should have to be faced with secondhand smoke, and nor should anyone else who doesn’t want to be.