Pardon Me If I (Still) Smoke


JUNE 30, 1997 VOL. 149 NO. 26



So the deal has been done, for now at least. The lawyers have capped their Mont Blanc pens and shut their $3,000 Italian-leather attaches. The state attorneys general have returned to their paneled offices to watch, over and over again, the tapes of their performances on the local news. And the tobacco executives now daydream--the stock price has held up!--of a peaceful retirement clipping bond coupons in Boca Raton, Fla.

What we face in the new tobacco agreement, incomplete though it may be, is an instance of the "Stalingrad dilemma," a term coined from that brutal battle in which the armies of Hitler met the armies of Stalin. Any decent person wants both sides to lose.

I speak (to declare an interest) as a smoker--a sometime smoker, to be sure, an on-again, off-again smoker, but one who has forever pledged his heart to the weed against the seemingly indomitable forces arrayed against it. And from where I sit, I see a carnival of dissembling and bad faith.

Consider, for starters, the state attorneys general, who brought the suits supposedly to win back the funds drained from state treasuries by smokers hacking away their Medicare dollars. They are by and large second-tier pols on the make, grasping for the kind of publicity that might boost them to the Governor's mansion or a Senate seat, but they know as well as the nearest actuary that smokers save the treasury money by (thoughtful souls that we are) dying young.

Their allies, the trial lawyers, care slightly less, shall we say, about social justice than about carving up the hundreds of billions the tobacco companies have just placed before them.

And tobacco executives? These are the folks who commission ads depicting mountain climbers sucking Salems after an exhilarating jaunt up the Matterhorn.

But we have forgotten the smoker. His bad faith, if he has it, is nothing worse than self-deception. It is his alone. Pollsters will tell you that most smokers want to quit. Maybe so. But the fact remains that many of them continue to smoke, and for many reasons. Those of an earlier generation--those few (ahem) still alive--began because Bogart and Bacall did it, and Bette Davis too: because it was cool and widely accepted. But later generations, at least those come of age after the unavoidable 1964 Surgeon General's report, found a different reason: because it was cool and widely reviled. Smoking today fits perfectly into the honored tradition of American individualism, a tradition as endemic as baseball or pickup trucks. We smokers like to think that when that paradigmatic American Huck Finn lit out for the territory, he lit up too.

In 1997, smoking sets you apart--literally. At restaurants we are seated back by the kitchen door, where we dine to the music of busboys clattering silverware into milky dishwater. At work we smoke huddled in the rain and snow, risking pneumonia for (we are told) the sake of the public health. The unintended consequence of each new restriction has been to make smoking a badge of honor, a sign of one's refusal to give in. And now, with last week's agreement--with this consensus arrived at by America's cynics and pols and buttinskies--the attractions of smoking can only grow.

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