Thursday, July 22, 2004

Department of Distaste

I'm not certain how long the Pennsylvania Department of Health has been running their latest anti-tobacco ads, but they especially came to my attention in recent weeks. The ads are shockingly graphic, depicting the frankly disgusting effects of tobacco use on the human body. In light of this, one naturally assumes that the jarring imagery is intended to dissuade users and potential users from these lethal substances. Would that it were so. The ad campaign fully expects Pennsylvania residents to be unjust, in Plato's sense of the word. For justice is minding one's own business, and the Department of Health knows that, in this day, Americans simply cannot help but meddle. Private habits are now public business, public affairs, and try, just try to smoke a cigarette without hearing a helpful comment from a passerby: "Those will kill you, you know;" "That's a disgusting habit;" or the always lovely affected cough from a concerned comrade. I must express incredulity that so many people could be concerned with my health and not with their own, for I assure you that one cigarette will not kill me, but one comment at the wrong time, in the wrong tone, may render me temporarily insane. And you know what temporarily insane people do: not content to sit around, temporarily-insanely watching television, or reading a book, they tend to waste little time finding the nearest makeshift weapon and putting it to deadly use. A Zippo embedded in your forehead is a steep price to pay.

The ads bear description. The first (the first I saw) is set to a selection from "Sea of Love:"

Come with me, to the sea

Do you remember when we met
That's the day I knew you were my pet
I want to tell you how much I love you

The song is performed by what I take to be a boys' choir, and the "pet" in the ad is chewing tobacco. Young boys (perhaps twelve years old) are seen chewing tobacco, spitting out the apparently used-up tobacco in a viscous brown sludge, and standing in front of a convenience store counter and asking the clerk to sell them some tobacco. Interspersed with these images are images of a person pulling his lower lip down to expose the rot in his gums presumably caused by mouth cancer; a young boy smiling, that full smile being replaced by one with a few missing teeth; and what I can only assume is a microscopic view of a cancerous cell. At the end, a written message appears urging clerks not to sell tobacco to minors.

I've not paid careful attention to the second commercial, but it follows similar lines. The whole of it is set to these lines from "Someone To Watch Over Me:"

I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood
I know I could always be good
To one who'll watch over me

My memory is rather poor on the remaining details, but a few images stand out. There is a girl attempting to buy cigarettes; there is a girl, or a group of girls, swimming; and there is a breathless old man or woman wearing an oxygen mask - the subject in this last image may have been in a hospital bed. The message at the end is the same, urging clerks to obey the law and not to sell tobacco products to minors.
By now you may wonder why these spots offend me as much as they do. Do I support capitalism to such an extent that I say to hell with the law, let the kids buy their smokes? Get 'em hooked early and you've got a couple of decades of repeat business, right? I wish I were such a cynic, but I have some touch of humanity remaining in this dog's heart, I'm afraid. The ads bother me because of the implicit message. It is not that we are to refrain from selling tobacco to minors because it is illegal, but because we'd be selling lifelong addiction to the poor bastards.

What exactly does that mean? For one thing, though I will not dwell on this point, it means that a child, once addicted to tobacco, is doomed forever to continue his habit until it kills him. The girl buying a pack of cigarettes becomes an old woman struggling to breathe; the boy chews tobacco until he chews his teeth out; that same boy will continue packing the tobacco into his mouth until it bleeds and festers with disease. I do wish someone had informed me that the philosophical debate over free will had been decided, and the determinists won in startling fashion. How could one otherwise explain the connection between a clerk's indiscretion and the eventual death of an addict? First of all, it is not that the clerk encouraged the child, so the child, first, is responsible for even desiring tobacco in the first place. The child makes a free act, and the clerk certainly did not force tobacco upon the youth. Of course, we all know that it is really heartless big tobacco that has so brainwashed the child that he is unable to choose for himself, right? Well, repetition of a lie does not make that lie true, though Michael Moore may be the fatal counterexample to that, and I happen to believe that compulsion and persuasion are entirely different things. The child was not compelled to do anything. Furthermore, at any time, the tobacco user could have stopped. At any time before becoming stricken with cancer, or some other illness, the user could have quit, and, since these harmful effects of tobacco almost always take years, even decades, to surface, the user was presented time and again with the choice to continue or to quit. He continued.

Tell me again, who is responsible? The ads imply that the clerk is leading the child to his demise, that he needs "one who'll watch over (him)," but it is obvious that the responsibility belongs to the user, not the one selling the product. The only real issue is the age of the user, but beyond the age of twelve, at least, a child is quite capable of making a free decision, though in his immaturity he may not bear full responsibility. I certainly do not want to suggest that we make tobacco available to minors, however, and my point is only that the entire crusade against tobacco is steeped in a mindset antithetical to free will. Children do have a diminished capacity to choose, but a child does not contract lung cancer, but must first become an adult and continue to choose to buy that carton of cigarettes every week. "Compulsion" has been radically redefined, or the definition simply does not matter.

Why does the state even make it an issue of concern for the health of another? Quite frankly, if you freely choose to harm yourself, I don't see why it is any concern of mine. The real issue is that it is illegal to sell tobacco products to minors, and that should be sufficient. If a paternalism obnoxious to our nation's philosophical and legal foundations of freedom and the personal responsibility concomitant with that freedom is a better motivation than the rule of law, then I weep for the present, never mind the future. I do not see why it is my business whether you give yourself lung cancer, but I see all too plainly why it is the state's business. The state has made it its business. The state has partially socialized medicine, and it often bears the burden of paying for treatment in the case of diseases caused by the use of tobacco. However, if state policy has given it justifiable cause to meddle where it really has no place meddling, why blame tobacco? Why not blame socialism for making it necessary that the state seek to restrict a private enjoyment? Well, because tobacco is so unpopular, while socialism, paternalism, and general meddling are the order of the day.
Just try to light up in plain view of a few people.

I was initially offended not by the paternalism implicit in the ads, but by their very disgusting nature and the time at which they were shown. They are, as I have said, graphic, and are always shown around six o'clock in the evening. A visually distasteful ad is being shown just as many are sitting down to eat, and since these ads show at the same time every day and very rarely, if at all, the rest of the day, I cannot help but conclude that this correspondence is intentional. For, you see, the crusade against tobacco transcends the limits of decency. You cannot be allowed to enjoy your meal in peace, because it is just so very important that we be reminded (in case we forgot) that a. upholding the law is a good thing; b. tobacco might just do some harm to your body (apparently the ads are intended for those who never attended a year in the public schools and thus missed the constant lessons about the dangers of tobacco, themselves often accompanied by graphic pictures of diseased lungs and such); and c. tobacco is still a rite of passage. Actually, regarding that last point, I tend to distrust anyone over the age of nineteen who has never smoked in his life. But I digress. You must have your appetite ruined so that the state of Pennsylvania can repeat itself and tell you what you already know, and what your children almost certainly know themselves, and what any clerk definitely knows as well. When an employee who will have among his duties the sale of tobacco products is hired, he in instructed carefully not to sell tobacco products to minors. The motivation given during this training is likely to be much more effective than the state's ad campaign, unless that employee happens to have the neurotic compulsion to make sure no one else ever enjoys himself. In that case, the ads will work wonderfully. The motivation that actually has an effect and makes these ads superfluous is the fact that a person caught selling tobacco to minors will be fined $1000 and almost certainly fired.

This is motivation enough for anyone with half a brain. However, the state is supposed to function in loco parentis now, with all its residents as willing agents, and we are not conscripted merely to look out for children, who do require special care and attention (though certainly both should come from their parents), but also for all our comrades. An adult conscientiously smoking a cigarette outdoors and by himself, taking the greatest care not to disturb the non-smokers around him, is still offensive to this mentality. For he is harming himself freely! He is exercising his rights as an American! And he's not hurting anyone else in the process! Damn him! And don't forget to let him know about lung cancer, in case he can't read those warnings, because it's your duty to meddle, your duty to be concerned about complete strangers.

Unless those strangers have AIDS...then it's a different story. And, perhaps, a future entry.



At 12:11 PM, July 22, 2004 , Blogger Auskunft, the Lion Hearted said...

Hmm... why not turn the TV off during or immediately prior to dinner? Problem solved.

Also, something that annoys me (and, heck, offends me in great quantity) is that there seems to be a trend to purposefully equate cigars and pipes with cigarettes. While this is not done implicitly on anti-ads, it is apparently the modus operandi of tobacco education courses or discussions (or something); on many occasions, busybody meddlers have felt the need to inform me that my Dunhill was going to hurt my lungs. The first time I tried my best to explain the technique of smoking a fine cigar, though my response fell on deaf ears. Since then, I simply combine a deep drag, an exaggerated eye-roll, a slight shoulder shrug, and then a hefty exhalation right in the assailant's face (or general vicinity). Both techniques are equally effective, but method the second provides much more personal satisfaction.

For the record, for all zero of you reading this now, who may be clueless about cigars in the manner I was just describing, one smokes a cigar by puffing it in order to fill one's mouth with the tasty, smooth, and pleasant smoke. Should one try to inhale this smoke into the lungs, similar to the process of smoking a cigarette, he would find the smoke neither smooth nor pleasant any longer. The quality of tobacco used for cigars is (in general anyway [as I am NOT considering Philies]) far superior to the chopped garbage filling cigarettes. A cigar is for prolonged enjoyment; a cigarette, to cease stress-induced shaking and murder plots.

At 1:39 PM, July 22, 2004 , Blogger Vernunft said...

A lot of statistics are released showing how much more dangerous to the health cigar smoking is (than cigarettes, the minor demons). Of course, the studies from which these statistics are gleaned often observe the effects of cigar smoking on people who inhale the smoke. Using these results to demonize all cigar smokers, even those who choose quality cigars capable of being enjoyed, not Captain Black's sticks of burning nausea, is unwarranted. Of course, those who cite the statistics never mention the conditions of the studies.

That's pretty much standard operating procedure for media types, though, isn't it? Take a study, summarize the data in a way favorable to your own point of view, even if it distorts reality, and conveniently leave out the annoying details that prove your interpretation to be flawed. Submit your lies to your editor, get them published, scare your readers, and dream of the Pulitzer.


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