Smoking may not be right – but it is my right to smoke.
“Thanks for a country where nobody’s allowed to mind his own business.”
– William S. Burroughs
I smoke cigarettes. And, yes, I know they’re bad for me.
Go ahead. I know what you’re going to ask. You’re aching to inquire why I regularly inhale noxious carcinogens into my lungs, knowing full well that with each puff I am slowly but surely killing myself. It’s all right. You got a question? I got an answer. Let’s see if they match.
If you catch me in a flippant mood, I’ll tell you that I smoke cigarettes because I don’t have the chutzpah to buy a gun. If we’re in a more academic setting, I’ll wax philosophical about the notion that modern civilization acts as an external secondary superego to the already-repressed id, creating in people an unsatisfied, white-knuckled longing for aggressive, unstable or even deadly behavior. If I’m feeling ironically evasive, I’ll tell you that James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s statuses as cultural icons would be somewhat maligned were they holding lollipops between their fingers in lieu of Luckies.
But, honestly, I smoke because I like it.
Because I can.
I’m a grown man and I enjoy the aroma of burning tobacco wafting into my nostrils and the rush of nicotine coursing pell-mell around my bloodstream. Smoking is my right. Smoking is my prerogative. As long as I am removed from those who don’t like it, smoking is my business and nobody else’s.
Unfortunately, if there’s one common characteristic in America, it’s our giant invasive noses, which we constantly find in places and situations where they don’t belong.
We, the International Brotherhood of the Black Lung, know full well non-smokers do not approve of what we do. We notice those dirty glares out the side of your eye. We hear your ham-handed imitation of a smoker’s hack. We try to accept our quarantined status in public places with grace and civility. It comes with a territory. Actually, many smokers, despite what you may have heard from the Public Service Announcements, would feel remorse if they knew they had unwittingly imposed the stench of their habit onto others. For the 3.5 minutes in takes to burn a coffin nail down to the filter, we mostly abide by a simple code – If you leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone.
But that doesn’t always happen
Recently, I was smoking outside when I suddenly felt a type of dread reserved for teenage scream queens and sickly gazelles on the Serengeti. I was being stalked.
A little boy, maybe five years old, plodded confidently towards me. He glanced over his shoulder at what must have been his parents, who remained on the sidewalk and gave him a thumbs-up. And then he recited what was obviously a memorized speech taught to him by his parents. I couldn’t tell you the specific wording of the speech – the nature of memory is more emotional than is exact. But I will say that I was made to feel unwelcome. Inferior. I was told, in so many words, that I was polluting the air, irrevocably dirtying the lungs of those around me and that was I generally malignant and foolish person for smoking – didn’t I know how harmful and disgusting cigarettes are?
Those of you who hope that this is a story about me terrorizing a small, precocious child will be disappointed. I didn’t scold the kid or threaten him. It’s not his fault that he was encouraged to invade someone else’s space. So I ignored him. Moreover, though it might seem reasonable to reprimand this boy’s parents for raising him to be a busybody, in reality, it would be hypocritical. I don’t want to be bothered for my nicotine habit. They probably don’t want some stranger telling them in very direct and profane terms how to raise their child.
But, still, it was an unwarranted violation. I was within the legal boundaries of where I can have a cigarette – 25 feet from an entrance. Though it’s not illegal to smoke on the sidewalk, I was attempting to be courteous and thus removed myself from the general human traffic. That kid approached me. I didn’t approach him. Essentially, his misguided parents sent that child right into the lion’s den, where his young lungs might suffer a few plumes of secondhand smoke. Perhaps his parents believe that the cause is so important it’s worth risking one’s health for. Poor little sprat. A few more years under that tutelage, and he might grow up to give his life for the cause.
But, the real issue here is not about my right to a mouth which tastes like an ashtray. I am concerned about my right to not be hassled.
As I’ve already stated, I’m more than aware of what a deadly and disgusting thing it is to smoke. I’m also aware that it makes people uncomfortable and that second-hand smoke is a bad thing. The State of Utah also knows this, which is why they enacted a Clean Air Act. They recognize that they cannot make me quit cigarettes, but they can set boundaries so that I don’t hurt or annoy anyone else in my vicinity. Essentially, the State of Utah has told all smokers, “As long as you are in these loosely designated areas, smoke all you want.” If smoking were really so out of control that it could completely ruin the lives of innocent non-smokers, it would be completely outlawed. But it’s not.
So, if I’m off in the distance smoking and you don’t like it, that’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to. But you also don’t have to walk all the way over to me and bother me just because my personal recipe for maxing and/or relaxing involves holding a small torch between my lips. You also don’t have to remind me that it’s going to kill me.
Because I’m also literate.
I can read the Surgeon General’s warning on tobacco use for myself and make a decision from there. You don’t have to make a scene, you don’t have to shake your head and cluck your tongue at me or anyone else who smokes.
You know what I think is stupid and annoying? The way about two-thirds of the young American male population sport a baseball hat. But if I started acting obnoxious, entitled and pouty every time some sweet bro had the bill of his Yankees cap at an angle designed to receive transmissions from outer space, I’d end up with a lot less free time and possibly a few less teeth.
You know what else is dangerous? Driving a car. In 2009, 33,808 people died in automobile accidents. But if I stood in a parking lot and reminded every motorist that the next time they turn their ignition it could be their last, a security guard would eventually be summoned to escort me off the premises for being a lunatic.
You know what else is a bad habit? Being morbidly obese. But we don’t outlaw eating double cheeseburgers or sitting in front of the computer all day. On the contrary, as long as people are within the bounds of the law and are not a direct danger to anyone else, we pretty much allow them to live as recklessly and act as stupidly as they wish. That level of personal accountability, which almost every citizen has by default, is of the best things about this country.
I am not an animal! I am a human being! So, until I approach you and exhale directly in your face, or stub my death stick out on your hamburger, please treat me respectfully. Please treat everyone respectfully, regardless of how disgusting, off-putting or generally offensive to your personal views and tastes they may be. Just because someone lives their life in a manner that you disagree with, it doesn’t mean that you should forget your manners.