Banning Cigarette Sales, and Class Inequality

by John Spritzler

February 23, 2009



The oh-so-liberal City of Boston has banned smoking in all workplaces, and banned the sale of cigarettes in drug stores. It is all in the name of improving our health. Where will it end?

Mom and pop drugstore owners (yes, there are still some in Boston) complain that it's not fair they should be deprived of their income from cigarette sales, but other businesses not. A Boston Globe columnist who supports the ban on cigarettes in general made the overwhelmingly powerful case today that this discrimination against drugstore businesses is unfair. In all likelihood, the logic of this argument will lead the zealots in the city's Public Health Commission to extend the ban on cigarette sales to all businesses. Then cigarettes will be, for all practical purposes, illegal to purchase in Boston, as alcohol once was in the days of Prohibition. Unlike alcohol during Prohibition, however, the manufacture and sale of cigarettes (outside of Boston, at least) will presumably remain legal. No doubt these legally produced cigarettes will make their way into Boston via a criminal black market, with all of the violence and sorrow that will entail.

I am not a cigarette smoker. But on behalf of cigarette smokers, I protest the ban on cigarette sales, whether it applies only to drugstores or not. The ban on cigarette sales reflects the liberals' approach to dealing with social problems. They ignore the root of the problem, which in this case is the fact that the wealthy owners of tobacco companies make huge fortunes by doing everything they can to hook people on cigarette smoking. Instead the liberals come up with "solutions" that only make life harder for the least powerful people in society. One cannot help but wonder if the motto of the Public Health Commission is the backwards version of the one that journalists are supposed to have. Is the Commission's motto "Comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted"?

Who smokes today? It is disproportionately the poorest people from the working class, not professionals and the business elite. And why is this? Academic research into this question is inconclusive, but the leading theory is this. Working class people are as desirous of quitting smoking as other people, but it is harder for them to quit because their lives are more stressful and unforgiving. This makes it harder for them to endure the several weeks of intense discomfort that comes immediately after quitting, and makes it more likely they will "light up" during that difficult period. There are other theories. One is that the immediate pleasure from nicotine (or at least the relief from the displeasure of prior nicotine withdrawal) that "lighting up" offers somebody matters more to a working class person who knows that his or her life will be all down hill after the senior high school prom, than to a person from a higher social-economic class who looks forward to a better and better life in an advancing career. Another theory is that smoking a cigarette is one of the few moments when a stressed out working class person can do something just for themself, making smoking more valuable to a working class than to an upper class person.

Instead of making it illegal for people who are addicted to nicotine to buy cigarettes, as the Boston Public Health Commission may do, we should make it illegal for anybody to make a huge fortune by hooking people on nicotine the way the owners of the big tobacco companies do. At the same time we should let people who wish to grow tobacco or manufacture cigarettes or sell cigarettes in their store do so, but not get rich by doing so. We should let people who want to smoke do so (in places where non-smokers are not forced to breathe in the smoke.) If nobody stands to get rich from people being addicted to nicotine there will be a lot less nicotine addiction and better health.

What this illustrates is that the problems in our society largely stem from the fact that we let people make huge personal fortunes, and we define "success" to mean acquiring vastly more wealth than others in a very unequal society. If people can get rich by hooking people on nicotine they do it. If they can get rich by hooking people on illegal drugs like heroin, they do that too. Working class people around the world are being impoverished and stressed out (and driven to smoke!) by the actions of banksters like Hank Paulson and Bernie Madoff who did what they did for only one reason--it made them rich.

If we abolished the right of anybody to be inordinately wealthy then we would eliminate the motive to do the nasty things that harm the rest of us. In a society that did not permit the few to be vastly wealthier than the many there would be no upper class who own vast amounts of land or huge factories, and no lower working class who, because they don't own such things, must work for those who do. Everybody would be the same class. In such an egalitarian society people would have no material-gain reason for doing something harmful to others. People would work for shared goals chosen to make life better for all.

How would this impact smoking? One of the reasons why working class children take up smoking is because official society tells them not to. Anti-smoking campaigns actually seem to increase smoking. In one study investigators reported, "there has been growing concern that antismoking campaigns may have unintended or boomerang effects, in that exposure to such campaigns intensifies initial prosmoking attitudes among young smokers (Meltzer, 2003) or increases adolescents' smoking susceptibility (Farrelly et al., 2002). One 21-year old male participant in a qualitative examination of 150 college students' responses to antismoking messages said the following: 'Those ads just make me want to light up a cigarette' (Wolburg, 2004)."

For working class youths it is cool to do the opposite of what official society with its anti-smoking campaigns tells one to do. Why is this? I don't think it is because of innate human (or teenage) nature. I think it is because our society is based on class inequality, with real power in the hands of a wealthy upper class that treats working people with contempt, as "the hired help" who exist only to serve the upper class and make them rich. The upper class lies to working class people for selfish reasons and working class people know it. Working class people, with good reason, do not trust the upper class people who manage society and create anti-smoking campaigns.

As long as our society is based on class inequality, public health messages about the health consequences of smoking will, with good reason, never be taken seriously by all smokers. Class inequality is also the reason why working people have lives that are so stressful and difficult and, quite possibly, why they smoke. Class inequality is the root of the problem.

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