A Very Bad Idea

By Max Fawcett | June 16, 2008


Anybody who’s been to their local convenience store in Toronto lately for a carton of milk, a can of tomato sauce, or, God forbid, a pack of cigarettes, has surely noticed the non-smoking movement’s newest spoil in the war against tobacco. In accordance with the new Smoke Free Ontario law, as of June 1st retailers will be required to conceal the cigarettes they carry in an effort to dissuade young people from taking up the habit, the logic being that if they can’t see them, they won’t want them. Unfortunately for the anti-smoking movement this newest strategy to eliminate smoking – and smokers – is far more likely to encourage teenagers to smoke than it is to dissuade them from it because it completely misunderstands the psyche of the average teenager.

Adolescence is about discovering the most effective way to rebel against one’s parents, teachers, and other figures of authority. It is decidedly not about complying with the rules and regulations enforced by adults. With that in mind, it makes absolutely no sense to try to reduce the appeal of a given product by hiding it from teenagers. It’s enough to make one wonder if any of these anti-smoking advocates have kids themselves, because a parent should be all-too aware of the fact that prohibiting something makes it instantaneously desirable to teenagers. We tell teenagers not to drink, not to do drugs, not to stay out
late, not to have pre-marital sex, and what do they do? Stay out late drinking,
doing drugs, and having pre-marital sex.

I remember the curtain in my local movie store that separated the regular movies from the x-rated ones. When I was a kid, my friends and I were, to say the least, very curious about what lay behind it. When we finally worked up the courage to make our move – one of us distracted the clerk while the rest of us slipped into the forbidden room – we were, as relatively innocent twelve-year olds, repulsed by what we found. But the power of the curtain – both literal and metaphoric – on teenagers is immense. I suspect that teenagers could be convinced, if only briefly, to eat their broccoli, do their math homework, and read the King James Bible if they hid them all behind curtains in local convenience stores. With that in mind, hiding cigarettes behind curtains at a time where their interest in cigarettes is at an all-time low is the height of stupidity.

This is the first serious misstep for a movement that’s been on a twenty-year roll. Their strategy to date has been flawless, as they’ve succeeded in raising both the
financial and social costs of smoking by substantially raising the price of a
pack and by pushing smokers out of the public eye and into the darkest corners
of society. They have, in effect, made smoking an exceptionally complicated
activity, and it’s given thousands of former smokers like myself reason enough
to seriously consider, and pursue, quitting. Where the prohibition movement of
the 1930s failed because it sought to eliminate the consumption of alcohol
through religious moralizing and an outright ban that invited cheating and profiteering, the anti-smoking movement has wisely taken a more pragmatic approach that impoverished smokers both financially and socially. But the decision to cloak cigarettes in secrecy by hiding them behind screens or under counters does not conform to that logic. If anything, it returns the element of rebellion to smoking that the anti-smoking movement had worked so diligently to deprive it of.

Shooting yourself in the foot is bad enough, but the anti-smoking movement seems determined to put a bullet in the other foot as well. Its new campaign to punish parents who smoke in their cars while their children are sitting in the back seat is even more self-destructive, and clearly marks its departure from a smart and tactically sound campaign of deterrence to a kind of neo-prohibitionism. It’s certainly true that smoking in a sealed car with children inside is bad parenting, but so too is a whole host of other behavior, from allowing children to plump up by feeding them a steady diet of processed and fast foods and allowing them to spend the majority of their time sitting in front of a computer screen to using the television as an unpaid babysitting service. To penalize those kinds of behavior is to allow the government to make a substantial incursion into our private lives and the liberties and freedoms we enjoy in them, not a decision to be taken lightly or without serious debate. It certainly falls beyond the purview of the anti-smoking movement, which should be strictly concerned with matters of public health rather than policing our private lives and the decisions we take in them.

Taken together, these two stratagems, the hiding of cigarettes under counters and behind walls and the penalizing of those who smoke them in front of their
children, demonstrate conclusively that the anti-smoking movement has
officially jumped the shark. It has lost sight of its original and organic
concerns, the prevention of smoking and the creation of smoke-free public
spaces, and has instead embarked on a campaign to eliminate smoking entirely.
In so doing, unfortunately, it may forfeit years of hard work and incremental
success, first by restoring the element of rebellion to cigarettes for
teenagers and second by irritating a public that has to date been positively
inclined towards its efforts by intruding on their private lives. The next
generation of smokers, suddenly larger than it would otherwise have been, can
thank them for these latest efforts.

June 17 – 929 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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