Picking on cigarette smokers

When I covered business for the Democrat and Chronicle, I would always look for the cigarette smokers – taking their breaks outside the building, in scorching sun or freezing rain.  They were generally the rebels and malcontents, and they gave me an insider’s view I couldn’t have got from the company executives or PR people.

The reversal in attitudes toward cigarette smoking is one of the biggest societal changes in my lifetime. When I was growing up, not smoking marked me as an oddity.  Humphrey Bogart smoked cigarettes. So did Edward R. Murrow. Smoking was cool.

Now it is smokers who are in the minority.  And they are a highly unpopular minority, subject to all kinds of petty persecution.  It is as if society needs an unpopular minority group that it is legitimate to despise and pick on, and in a society increasingly tolerant of differences of race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation, somebody else has to be found to fill that ecological niche – not that smokers are lynched or denied the right to vote.

Smoking is hazardous to your health.  And nicotine is addictive.  But the U.S. approach to this problem is not to regulate the tobacco companies, or eliminate subsidies for tobacco growers, but to interfere with the daily lives of individual cigarette smokers.

A Wharton School of Finance study found that Philip Morris (now the Altria Group) was by far the most profitable on the companies on Standard & Poor’s 500 index.  An investment of $1,000 in 1957 in the S&P index would have yielded about $125,000 by the end of 2003, but $1,000 invited in Philip Morris would have yielded nearly $4.6 million.

I never smoked cigarettes.  I recall at age 12 or 13 picking up an adult’s smoldering cigarette from an ashtray when she was out of the room, and inhaling. It was so unpleasant I never tried it again.  But I have no feeling of self-righteousness over this.  I do other things that are bad for my health, and I fail to do things I ought to do for the sake of my health.

So I believe in live and let live.  I think I’m better off smoking than not smoking.  But I know that nobody ever made themselves immortal by observing safety rules.


I enjoyed Forty Lashes, a brilliant anti-antismoking polemic by Mat Coward, a British SF and detective story writer.



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