My father smoked cigarettes, my mother didn’t. She was always telling him not to. I don’t know what effect these colloquies had on them, but I know the effect they had on me: I never smoked cigarettes.
I had my first cigar when my college singing group was performing at the Greenbrier resort near Washington, D.C. After dinner, our business manager passed out wands of tobacco the size of chair legs. I puffed away; then I began to feel like a corked bottle; then I left dinner behind a bush. Later in the evening a fellow singer, after smoking something else, said he craved a second meal. I told him I knew where he could find a used one. I hardly ever smoke cigars.
As for the big C, I had an uncle, a smoker, who died of it. If I were Garry Kasparov, we would now be through the first 20-odd moves, and at the point where The New York Times prints a little diagram with bulbous kings and rooks, and things get interesting, or at least active. We read that the tobacco deal, which was midwived by the tobacco companies and the state attorneys general, then taken in hand by Congress, is suddenly threatened, for the tobacco companies have pulled out, though Congress vows to push ahead.
Have we lost our minds? The war on tobacco is perfect for America, and for the 1990’s: self-pitying, self-righteous, infantile. It is entirely appropriate that it is being led, on Capitol Hill, by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, the small-state pawn of Charles Keating and the crooked savings and loans, who to compensate for stealing our money enlists in every crusade to save our souls: first with campaign finance reform, now with tobacco. Equally appropriately, his partner in the fight against nicotine addiction is President Clinton, the man who never passed up a hamburger or a mouth.
Is there any doubt that the ultimate effect of the activities of health fanatics like Mr. McCain, Mr. Clinton and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop must be Prohibition? Their maximum agenda, so far, is to classify nicotine as a drug, to be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. But what follows from that? How could we justify the continued sale of a drug with no medical uses? Or will the H.M.O.’s start writing prescriptions for concentration and weight loss? I was debating the question of medical marijuana with Representative Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, an earnest social conservative, and I threw him, as a weary debater’s block, the proposition that even a pot-beheader like him would not ban tobacco or alcohol. He agreed that settled habit made such bans impossible, though he added that if tobacco and alcohol were newly discovered, he might well ban them. So the social conservatives show their moderation and their willingness to learn from experience. The health fanatics should be so reasonable.
Is there any doubt that taxes of more than a dollar a pack, such as Senator McCain’s original deal proposed, will bring in the first harvest of what will become, under prohibition, a bumper crop: black markets, smuggling and cigarette mobsters? Price differentials already produce such activity along the Canadian border. Gunfights periodically erupt in the Mohawk Indian reservations over just this traffic. I once interviewed novelist Mordecai Richler at his favorite Montreal pub; as we drank (drink up, before Senator McCain has another idea), a young man strolled through, like a cigarette girl in a 1930’s movie, except he wasn’t cute, and he carried his wares in a backpack rather than a tray. Also, his cigarettes were quite illegal. Look for more of the same. The Brighton Beach mafia undoubtedly is.
Isn’t it dishonest to pay for worthwhile projects from a tax that is meant to phase itself out? With one hand, we tax to drive a vice out of existence; with the other, we spend the revenues on virtue. If the first hand succeeds, where will the second go for its money? Meet the tax-raising Republican Congress. Why not elect honest Democrats, and be done with it?
We say we are driven by our concern with health, and we are. But we are even more driven by a frenzy over addiction. Addictive substances and behaviors proliferate like spam. Nowadays there are gambling addicts, credit card addicts, sex addicts. Putting one of the latter in the White House hasn’t helped matters. But fornication is not a mind-altering chemical substance. How did it get to call itself an addiction? Science now shows that the compulsive chemicals already are in our brains, and that pleasures can release them. But if not everybody responds in a compulsive fashion, then the pleasures aren’t compelling, are they? Isn’t it time to retire the concept of addiction, and say instead that some people need help controlling their pleasures, and others don’t? John Callahan, the cartoonist who lost the use of his limbs in a drunk driving accident, drew a cartoon of drunks at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, reciting their rationalizations: “I drank because my shoes were too tight.” “I drank because I had a machine on my back that made me drink.” “I drank because my mother named me Corky.” Mr. Callahan does not drink anymore, and he credits A.A. with shaping him up, but he also does not blame his drinking on the evil properties of Demon Booze.
Worries about addiction are encouraged by sentimentality about “children,” i.e., young men and women. Since when did teenagers get rechristened as children? If they are old enough to sire brats, they are old enough to begin to think about their lungs. A lot of them won’t think sensibly because the young are even more stupid than the old. Do we encourage them to think by caterwauling about the threats posed to their innocence by Joe Camel? The great attraction of smoking to teenagers is the allure of a manageable vice that suggests maturity. We increase that allure by equating 12-year-olds rhetorically with fans of the Teletubbies.
It is a waste of the breath I have preserved by not smoking, because it is an election year, the Republicans are terrified, and President Priapus rules all he surveys from his mighty seat.