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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

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Road to Hell Redux

Because I manage a restaurant and am a still-recovering ex-smoker, I’m more aware than most people of the implications of the new anti-smoking law that took effect on May 31, 2006 . I am, in the interests of full disclosure, not fond of the Orwellian overtones of the new law, and I’m more than a little disturbed by the total absence of nuance or context in its language. But I’m also a realist at heart and I know that this new law is part of a broader social movement to completely eliminate smoking. It amounts to nothing less than a social revolution, a remarkably successful one at that, and nuance and context are rarely compatible with these kinds of efforts.

Their strategy to date has been flawless; 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 1920s 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 used an approach that impoverishes smokers both financially and socially.

But amid the self-congratulatory back-patting among the anti-smoking elite, a major mistake is being made that threatens many of their gains. They’re not doing it intentionally, of course, but instead are walking the well-worn trail of good intentions that consistently lead to hell, What I mean is that they may be creating a new generation of smokers. Manitoba recently enacted legislation that will act as the template for similar bills in jurisdictions across Canada that will require cigarette retailers to “hide” their products. The law is obviously meant to reduce smoking among Manitoba’s teenagers, an intention underscored by the jaw-droppingly stupid observation made by the Manitoba Tobacco Reduction Alliance’s Murray Gibson that “eighty-five percent, some say as high as 90 percent, of new smokers are teenagers.” No kidding.

My eight-year old sister Hartlea’s attitude towards smoking provides a telling demonstration of the success of the anti-smoking movement to date. We both grew up in households where every adult figure of authority – for me, my mother, father, and step-mother, for Hartlea, her father, mother, and older brother – smoked cigarettes regularly. Yet while I grew up with decidedly positive feelings about smoking, she despises the habit. Whenever I lit up near her she asked me, sometimes in a less-than-polite manner, to sit “in the smoking section”. She even drew me a picture to that effect which read “Newsflash! Stupid man smokes cigarettes! Man named Max!” I worry about her future, about the difficult choices she’s going to face and how she’ll deal with them, but smoking isn’t one of them. The same, I suspect, is true for her friends, her classmates, and other Canadians her age as well.

The proposal to hide cigarettes will only serve to undo this accomplishment because the logic behind 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. Given that, it makes absolutely no sense to try to reduce the appeal of a given product by hiding it from teenagers. It makes me wonder of any of these anti-smoking advocates have kids themselves, because a competent parent should be painfully aware of the fact that prohibiting something makes it instantly 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, about equally repulsed and thrilled by what we found.

The literal and metaphoric power of the curtain 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 these things were all hidden behind curtains in local convenience stores. That’s why hiding cigarettes behind curtains at a time where their rebelliousness quotient (trademark pending) is at an all-time low is the height of stupidity.

Revolutions tend to end badly because their leaders, whether emboldened by early success or tempted to reach beyond their limitations, go too far, and the same is true of Canada ’s anti-smoking movement. They started with the honourable goal of protecting the health of non-smokers from the perils of second-hand smoke in workplaces, restaurants, and other enclosed public spaces, but now they’ve now decided that they’re going to eliminate smoking altogether. This is both wrongheaded and authoritarian, and it’s going to backfire, big time. 

But they’re not going to listen to me, or anyone else who is critical of their efforts. If they kept raising the price of cigarettes they could, in twenty years, make smoking cigarettes as rare a habit as puffing on a pipe is today. But they’re on a roll, and they’re going to move cigarettes under the counter and behind the metaphorical curtain. The next generation of smokers, enticed by the newfound element of rebellion in smoking, can thank them for it.

Toronto, June 1st, 2006 – 983 w.

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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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