The New Untouchables

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A recent study in the UK found that more than half of smokers lie to family and friends about the extent of their habit. And why wouldn't they? Anti-smoking sentiment is now so prevalent that cartoons are retroactively edited to delete animated cigarettes, and movies that still allow actual smoking are castigated with the same moral fervor once (and still) directed at X-rated films.

Nothing has helped me understand the social impact of stigmatizing “illegal drug users” as much as watching the stigmatization of smokers over the last decade or so. Quite apart from whether smoking is as damaging as reported, the marginalization of those who choose to do it has been instructive.

Once a socially respectable and sexy practice, lighting up a cigarette now converts the puffer into a pariah and even into a child abuser by means of the “toxic” secondhand smoke. Companies require smokers to conduct their filthy habit on the pavement outside, despite subzero weather. Some refuse to extend health insurance to smokers; others refuse to hire them at all. Public areas open to the wind and weather have been closed to smokers. Weighing the smoking-status of battling parents is a growing trend in child custody cases.

All this has occurred while cigarettes are still legal and tobacco companies reap billions in profits. While “victims” of obesity receive love and sympathy, “victims” of smoking receive hatred and contempt. And it has occurred despite the fact that — unlike illegal drugs — no one seriously accuses cigarettes of causing prostitution, theft, impaired driving, or reduced judgment. Nor are cigarettes a slippery slope to heroin. But despite the absence of such horrendous accusations, the smoker is despised and shamed. Even as she hands over more and more tax money for the privilege of consuming a legal product, the government targets the smoker with panic-inducing campaigns such as the one underway from the CDC, an agency that has invested $54 million tax dollars to promote televised “public service” announcements and posters with revolting images.

I've watched in wonder as society has created a reviled class of people virtually out of thin air.




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