Midterms: studying for them is like army boot camp and taking them is like an early summer morning in 1944 Normandy. You know what would be a fantastic way for Northwestern to take care of its students and relieve their never-ending stress? Try rationing out some cigarettes. Thoughts? I mean it worked for the army in World Wars 1 and 2. And let’s face it: midterms in Evanston are pretty rough.
Just think of all the benefits of smoking. It relieves stress, curbs your appetite (so long, freshman 15), and makes you look like a bad-ass (?). Of course, one downside I guess is that it kills you and potentially those around you as well. It’s enough of a downside that President Obama (a former smoker himself) felt it prudent to sign into law last summer a nationwide ban on flavored tobaccos. Relax, hookah is safe.
But how does a ban on tooty-fruity cancer sticks solve anything? The argument is that people start smoking when they’re young. When they’re young, they’re susceptible to things like advertising and fun, appealing flavors and colors (see Pink Elephants). So in addition to a flavor-ban, cigarette advertisements cannot be displayed within 1,000 feet of any school or playground. Smart, sure, but how well does advertising work?
An estimated 1% of cigarette sales come from flavored cigarettes. By the government’s logic, if a pack of flavored cigarettes is appealing once , then kids want to upgrade to regulars because they taste the same? That’s hard to believe. The truth is, it’s not the taste of cigarettes that gets people hooked: smokers don’t care if a cigarette is “toasted” (see Mad Men, season 1).
Most people who grow into a cigarette addiction start smoking at 19 years of age, not playground age. And at 19, people are more influenced by their environment. A peer pressure message may or may not be coming.
Let’s take Northwestern’s campus for example, the D.A.R.E. generation. We all grew up knowing that cigarettes, drugs and alcohol were bad. For plenty of people on this campus, the adverse effects of the latter two haven’t prevented consuming them. In any case, we or one of our friends may have smoked a cigarette just to “try it out”, just to find out what this mysterious 80 millimeters was all about. One thing led to another and we all wanted to try one. Some got hooked, others didn’t and others still grew to get hooked just by being around the hooked ones.
If most people pick up smoking around the age of 19 and if environment seems to be more of a determining factor in picking up smoking than advertising, then the measures our government is taking to reduce the numbers of new smokers aren’t helping out. In fact, these kinds of government regulations only serve up political trouble. As a response to this new law, cigarette companies have taken the federal government to court. Should we really be spending our judicial capital on fighting greedy tobacco companies with these laws that probably won’t matter?
Just imagine if Evanston banned liquor and beer because they hurt the liver and damage the brain (among other things) and cause people to get into drunken accidents or fall out of windows. The state drinking age doesn’t seem to stop NU students from getting wasted and throwing away their $50k educations. That means no more Keg, no more EV1. For that matter, no banners or fliers with beer or liquor references on them either. But wine is fine. Do you really think Northwestern students would settle for Carlo Rossi 24/7 and not find a way to procure Busch or Stoli? Okay, maybe some of us would be fine with Carlo Rossi but most wouldn’t. It’d be just one more law to enforce that doesn’t work.
My point is, if we fight the most convincing introduction to cigarettes (e.g. environmental persuasion) we accomplish two things: the death of its continuation and the death of its appeal. In recent years, state after state has offered a slew of bans that prevent smokers from lighting up in closed public spaces, but that doesn’t stop people from enjoying their coffee and cigarette outside or moving to Texas (which, along with several other states, has no state-wide ban on indoor smoking). And as an economic tangent, just imagine owning the only bar in Chicago that allows smoking indoors? Sounds like cash-money to me, and reason for states not to ban smoking in public establishments for want of new business. But in any case the environment I’m referring to isn’t physical, it’s psychological.
Ernest Dichter, a brilliant psychologist and pioneer of Freudian applications to marketing, had it right back in the day. He basically said that people like to smoke not because they’re told it’s cool by ad-companies, but because of how it makes them feel. He plays up the psychological effects of smoking, how smokers derive happiness from a cigarette break at work, or how it brings people together. It works into your daily routine, it relaxes you, helps you think. In this way, smoking becomes more than just an addiction, it becomes a lifestyle. If smokers quit, they feel like they will lose the perceived benefits of smoking. Because they don’t quit, others want to join in on the fun.
So how do you outlaw peer pressure? How do you outlaw a psyche? Isn’t that the point of Nicorette? To convince people that you don’t need a cigarette to feel good about life? Isn’t that the point of all those public service announcements? Laws are all fine and dandy but outlawing a lifestyle is damn near impossible.
Society has to find a way to replace smoking socially and psychologically, not physically. Though the number of smokers and overall consumption of cigarettes has reduced over time, the incubating environmental niche for new smokers will probably continue to exist in culture and conversation unless people actively seek a change in social mentality by revamping what we teach kids about cigarettes. Instead of just telling kids that smoking is bad, we should be telling them why people smoke: it’s not to look cool, it’s for that lifestyle that Dichter describes. Kill the curiosity, and the cat lives. Knowledge of cigarettes helps, but instilling wisdom in our youth goes a lot further.
Instilling this wisdom is a daunting and highly improbable task, but I guess that’s the point. Smoking has always been a cultural, social and psychological phenomenon. It’s a lifestyle, a religion that transcends mere addiction, one that costs our health system billions of dollars a year and one that requires a generation of new thinking, not just laws, to kill.