You see them lurking in alleys, shivering in the cold and shunned by the rest of society while they fulfill their craving for their powerfully addicting drug of choice. No they aren’t homeless urban crack heads, they are the latest downtrodden minority, cigarette smokers. It’s gotten to the point I almost feel sorry for them. I said almost.
America has always had a complex relationship with tobacco. It was unknown outside of America until early explorers brought it back from the New World. I guess you could say it’s ironic that we stole the land from the Native Americans and their revenge was to unleash tobacco on an unknowing and naive world.
Soon after its introduction, it became an instant rage in Europe and usage spread quickly, which is often the case when a new drug is introduced into a culture without any established customs regarding its use. It became an instant cash cow for the southern states and one of the unintended consequences of its lucrative nature was the shameful legacy of slavery.
Tobacco is embedded in the fabric of our culture. Hollywood movies and television glamorized smoking and made it so mainstream that you were considered weird if you didn’t smoke. The robust hero always had the cigarette dangling from his mouth, looking so cool and sophisticated, unruffled by any dangerous situation. Cigarettes were used as a reward for a job well done or as the ultimate remedy when they were given to the wounded hero in the war movies as he gave his dying speech.
We didn’t find out until internal company documents revealed years later that the tobacco companies paid the movie studios big bucks for the subconscious advertising and product placement in their movies. So it’s no surprise the impressionable public was manipulated by the cunning themes of their marketing strategy.
This worked so well that during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s smoking was considered a right and those who suggested it was anything other than an innocent habit were castigated as un-American. Things began to slowly change as more and more scientific evidence began to accumulate against the notion that tobacco is harmless. Even the tobacco companies had to admit in front of Congress that it was harmful and addicting, after decades of obstruction and denial.
So, where does this leave the millions of American who became addicted during the time when we thought it was harmless?
Approximately 5.4 million people each year die from smoking related diseases and, according to the World Health Organization, it’s the leading cause of preventable death worldwide. Of the 45 million Americans who smoke, 438,000 die each year in the U.S. alone, it causes more deaths than AIDS, illegal drug abuse, alcohol abuse, accidents, suicides and murder combined.
However, smokers aren’t stupid and they know this. They also know that second-hand smoke is endangering their friends and family. According to the California EPA, second-hand smoke accounts for 3,400 lung cancer deaths and 22,700 heart disease deaths among nonsmokers each year. They know their habit is especially harmful to the most vulnerable among us our children, causing sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory problems, ear problems and asthma.
Recent medical evidence suggests tobacco is harder to quit than heroin or cocaine. Industry documents have shown how tobacco companies systematically manipulated the nicotine content in cigarettes to create a new generation of addicts to replace the ones who die each year from using their product.
So, perhaps a little compassion is in order for the millions who know they must quit but can’t. The average smoker tries to quit at least eight times before they are successful. I’ll try to remember that the next time a cigarette smoker is sitting right next to me puffing away.