I'm old enough to sorta remember the days when cigarette advertising on television was legal. Even as a child I considered the ads annoying, as did almost everybody else, which is why not enough questions were asked at the time about the advertising ban's implications for free speech rights. I even recall a couple of the jingles that accompanied some of those ads, such as the one for Salem (You can take Salem out of the country but . . . you can't take the country out of Salem!") In our secretly subversive world of children there were even little parodies of the songs which swept through The World Famous Thomas M. Balliet Elementary School, in particular I remember some involving the jingle for Winston's. One of the cleaner ones went:
Like the one I just had
Fifty cents?!! Good Lord, today 50 cents wouldn't cover the most recent increase in the tax per package. I grew up to be a smoker myself, having tried my first cigarette in fourth grade (stolen from my mother no less) but didn't actually buy my first pack until I was fifteen. I quit in 2004 when I developed a stubborn cough. Happily the cough faded away within a few weeks of quitting and I never went back and don't intend to. But I still find myself occasionally missing the cigarettes and probably always will on some level.
What people that have never smoked don't understand is that in many ways smoking is a wonderful pastime. It fits in perfectly with our modern lifestyle, which is always requiring you to wait for this, stand around for that and full of any number of dull, meaningless interludes. Being able to light up a cigarette is a great way to fill these empty spaces in your day.
Furthermore, smoking cigarettes are a calming activity, while at the same time giving you a surge of energy that helps to lift depression and enhance your ability to focus on the activity at hand. That's not a completely subjective opinion. Scientific studies have shown that people can perform complex tasks requiring extra concentration better after smoking a cigarette. Psychiatrists have long noted that patients who suffer from anxiety and depression report a marked improvement in their symptoms when they smoke, and sometimes hesitate to urge their patients to quit for that reason.
Of course smoking is also addictive (some studies suggest that the process of becoming addicted to cigarettes is quicker than becoming addicted to heroin) and heavy smoking over many years is also linked to heart disease and cancer. Evidence that cigarette smoke poses a risk to bystanders is much flimsier than most people think, but in any case, cigarette smoke doesn't smell very good, although smokers themselves get so they don't even notice it.
So America continues to have this love/hate relationship with tobacco. On one level we recognize smoking to be a useful, kinda cool drug, and on another we want to condemn it for its addictive, health threatening side-effects. There is also the little matter of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who make money off the drug, from the farmers in North Carolina to the pusher behind the counter at the local 7-11. Not all of that money is coming from American citizens either, millions of dollars come pouring into this country from overseas, where American cigarette brands are considered status symbols and can be sold at outrageously high prices. No one is too eager to cut off that fiscal gravy train.
So we settle for half-measures. We put up all kinds of legal roadblocks and inconveniences to smoking while always making sure that none of those barriers are actually high enough to prevent anyone who really wants a pack of cigarettes from getting one. The government (all the while stuffing its own pockets with cigarette taxes) sternly scolds us to stop doing what, if we actually stopped doing it, would mean that the politicians couldn't balance their budget. So instead we play silly, petty games and strike phony virtuous poses.
Once upon a time in America you were free to go to your own inescapable grave in your own way, with your family and friends and the general public leaving you be. But now there are all kinds of health nazis running around. They see nothing wrong with nagging friends and family members and even scolding perfect strangers about smoking, without an ounce of the compassion that would be granted to victims of other vices. A heroin addict we are told deserves pity and treatment on demand at the taxpayer's expense, but the friendless cigarette smoker deserves only our self-righteous scorn. When did our once magnanimous American spirit become so petty and small?
Of course, these are just ways of dodging the real question, the answering of which we always go to inordinate lengths to avoid: What kind of drugs do we want to be legal in this country? Cigarettes, alcohol and caffeine are not the only options, and some would argue they are not the best options by any means. But that would mean approaching our national drug policies from a completely fresh perspective, indeed recreating them from scratch. Instead we'd rather tackle the issue from the margins, with such things as banning cigarettes in restaurants, so that we can pretend that we're doing something, when we really don't want to do anything at all.
On this hot and hazy morning a black dog kept watch on the streets of Northampton.
Meanwhile the humans sat on the stoops and played with computers.
I was meeting with Mo Turner of the Valley Advocate and Mary Carey of The Amherst Bulletin and we spoke of my forthcoming projects for both publications as well as politics, culture and the media agenda for this summer.
I'm going to Maine tomorrow morning with my lost brother and I don't know when I'll be back. Having sold my laptop last year while in my crackhead death spiral, I'm unsure of my degree of computer access in the coming days. However, I believe there is a computer in the house I'm staying at, so I should still be able to post my Maine adventures, at least sporadically. Stay tuned.
Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead has a new band featuring Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers Band and guitarist Scott Murawski of Max Creek. You may recall Max Creek as the Connecticut based jam band that has played all up and down the Valley for years. Here's a video with some great crowd shots.
Q: If the dove is the bird of peace, what is the bird of true love?
A: The swallow.