Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Dearth of Kool*

The smoking issue continues its extended run in the local media spurred on by an impassioned public who are flocking to the fray in great numbers. Amid all of the arguments concerning health and rights and economics, one question intrigues me: Why do people smoke?

Of course, scientists will go on and on about how prolonged smoking results in reduced levels of monoamine oxidase B in the brain, which in turn leads to enhanced dopamine activity, blah, blah, blah. We get it already. But the real reason people smoke, and you don’t need to conduct positron emission tomography scans to figure this out either, is the common misconception that sucking on a smoldering stick of tobacco looks cool. It’s as plain as the leather jacket on Fonzie’s back.

There are other reasons people smoke. It’s relaxing. It curbs the appetite. It’s incredibly addictive. But those only come into play after a person has already made the unnatural decision to regularly introduce smoke into their lungs. Before the addiction and the side benefits of a deadly habit, comes a deep-burning desire to look cool.

This wasn’t always the case. Once smoking was a white bread habit that drew retribution from only the most fervent of vice marshals. But ever since tobacco manufacturers have been made to carry those dire warnings, the raison d'etre of smoking is as a signifier of a free-spirited soul. The ultimate prop for the rebel without a clue.* A magic wand that smokers can wave around to create an air of mystery that others will be entranced by even as they are succumbing to a fitful and most unbecoming cough.

Advertising and movies are certainly guilty of helping to perpetrate this myth, although I’m not a big fan of the current movement to pressure filmmakers into only putting butts in the mouths of villains and other unimitable types. Artistic vision must be respected and besides, there’s no way to stop Angelina Jolie from smoking on screen even if you do ditch the cigs.

I’d rather concentrate on the anti-smoking efforts to combat this filthy habit. The most potent arrow in their quiver, from a practical standpoint, is the overwhelming evidence that smoking is connected to a lot of nasty diseases. The problem with this strategy is that by the time smokers reach the age where they become concerned about their future health, they’re already hooked - line and sinker. Many smokers lament ever having started to smoke but feel powerless to quit. So the key is to stop people before they start.

Studies show that most people start smoking in their teens or early twenties. At that age, young people are no more concerned with the possibility of getting cancer from smoking or tanning beds than they are of becoming irregular due to a lack of fiber. If they do contemplate their own mortality, it’s a romanticized version of living fast and dying young that would only be accentuated by expiring with a cigarette dangling artfully from their lips.

I believe that the best way to de-glamorize smoking is to counterattack, aiming directly at the vanity of those who would be puffers.

Several years ago, one of the television news magazine programs conducted an interesting experiment with a small group of teenage girls, all of whom were smokers. They brought the girls together and presented to them the facts, in grizzly detail if I remember correctly, of all of the health dangers that they would be subjected to as smokers. When they reconvened a month or so later, a couple of the girls said that they had quit briefly, but all of them continued to smoke.

Then the producers tried a different tactic. Instead of concentrating on the calamity that would befall the insides of their bodies, they focused attention on the outside. They explained how smoking yellows teeth, causes the pores of the face to expand, and promotes other unnatural aging effects. To drill this point home, they took headshots of the girls and had a graphic artist digitally apply the ravages of a decade or so of smoking. When the girls caught a glimpse of the future and the hideous creatures that they would become, they were scared smokeless.

Although this experiment provides only limited anecdotal evidence, I think that it speaks to a larger truth about young people. That is: they can’t bear the thought that others might find them unattractive. It’s a powerful insecurity, one that can unfortunately have devastating effects. But since not ending up looking like a Virginia Slims hag or a Marlboro hobo is something within their control, future anti-smoking campaigns should make that appeal.

There’s a comical and unflattering facial expression that nearly all smokers make from time to time, and it should be featured on the next anti-smoking billboard that is erected. You’ve probably witnessed it firsthand. It occurs when a smoker has a cigarette in her mouth, but can’t remove it because her hands are occupied with other matters. As the smoke curls up into her eyes, her face attempts to retreat through to the other side of her head. One eye closes while the other fights to remain operational. In this instant, even the prettiest starlet can look like Imogene Coca.

All of the impassioned pleas to save thyself from cigarettes' deadly charms are falling on deaf ears. Show these young people the rebarbative fate that awaits them should they succumb to RJ Reynolds’ sickening siren. It may be disingenuous to claim that a pack of smokes is equivalent to twenty whacks with the ugly stick. But not more so than claiming that it will make you look cool.

*Title based on Miles Davis' classic recording "The Birth of Cool."

**I don’t know who originated this phrase but I always credit Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. Tom Petty fans will give their man credit, but "I'll Be You" was released before "Into the Great Wide Open." Besides, "I'll Be You" is a better song. Besides, besides, somebody else probably said it before either one of them.


Wade said...

Brilliant man, outstanding.

Quote of the piece:

"there’s no way to stop Angelina Jolie from smoking on screen even if you do ditch the cigs."

Anonymous said...

Grisly, man! Grisly!

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Webster’s does approve of “grizzly” as a variant of “grisly”, but I stand corrected on this one. I should have used “grisly.” Thank you for pointing out my error.

By the way, if you’re the same person who called me out on “bold-faced” yesterday, I’d appreciate it if you would use a screen name (you can still remain anonymous.) I don’t mind if you critique my writing, but I need to have a name to curse whenever you vex me by revealing the shortcomings in my work.