We need to do more about smoking

According to Business Insider, cigarette butts are the ocean’s single largest source of trash. Smokers seem to think they can flick their used butts pretty much anywhere – on sidewalks, in waterways, public parks. Out the car window, at times causing disastrous forest fires that claim lives and cause billions of dollars in property damage. While smoking rates seem to be declining overall, vaping rates are skyrocketing among Canadian teens. After everything we’ve learned about the impacts of cigarettes, I genuinely can’t understand why so many people still smoke.

Every day during my lunch break, I try to take a walk to get a bit of exercise and fresh air. I work in the financial district so the crowding and car fumes downtown are bad enough, but the amount of cigarette smoke I have to breathe in while walking down the street worries and enrages me beyond words. Everywhere, smokers line the sidewalks and blow their carcinogenic clouds right in people’s faces. They don’t seem to give a damn. It smells awful, especially in the summer heat.

The worst offenders are people who smoke while walking down the street, leaving a trail of poison behind them that can’t be avoided. Also, people who smoke while standing next to others as they wait for the bus, and smokers who feel entitled to stand right beside building entrances. I’ve had to move seats on the subway because I developed a headache within minutes of sitting beside a smoker. Movies and TV shows still seem to have a love affair with cigarettes, too. Peaky Blinders in particular is a big offender; the ubiquity of smoking on the show is positively stratospheric. I wanted to throw up just watching it.

The Ontario government has passed laws designed to protect the public but they’re never enforced. If you asked most people, they’d have a rudimentary familiarity with these laws, at best. Hardly anyone knows about this one, for example:

You cannot smoke or vape on the outdoor grounds of a community recreational facility and any public areas within 20 metres of its grounds.

And if they know about it, they don’t care. The City of Toronto has also passed bylaws including one that prohibits smoking within 9 metres of any building used by the public. Although this bylaw is well-known and signs are posted everywhere, rarely does anyone heed them. At my place of work, there’s a large outdoor space where smokers can congregate far away from the entrance, but almost every day as I enter the building, some oaf is standing right there, obnoxiously puffing away.

On a positive note, I’ve seen acknowledgements in the media lately about the fact that smokers tend to take more work breaks and there’s a growing appetite for redress. Global News reports:

A Japanese company is giving its non-smoking staff an additional six days of holiday a year to make up for the time smokers take for cigarette breaks.

This is only fair. It’s about time!

I understand that cigarettes are highly addictive. I have personal experience of a close family member who for many years smoked in my presence. Eventually they limited their smoking to the basement, and then later, outside. When they found out they had a brain aneurysm, they realized they had no choice but to quit. They did it cold turkey and though it was hard, they never looked back. My grandfather was a chain smoker and after he retired, he suffered a stroke. But that’s not what did him in; years later, he died of lung cancer. At a family reunion a couple of years ago, almost everyone was smoking right where we were all set up in the garage with games, drinks and food. They didn’t even have the decency to walk 3 metres away to smoke outside. Truly incomprehensible. The craziest part is my grandmother is 91, in fantastic health, and has no plans to quit smoking. She’s outlived my other grandmother, who passed away last year at 91 and never smoked a cigarette in her life.

As someone who’s been treated for cancer recently, I’m more sensitive about the issue now and I struggle to understand society’s apathy about this problem. No one ever says anything, and because no one ever says anything, no one ever says anything. I know that in this environment, if I were to speak up, people would either ignore me or respond as though I was the one being rude. From time to time when someone’s smoke is blowing in my face and I can’t get away, I’ll give them a dirty look and they usually get the hint and move away. But it shouldn’t come to that.

All of this would change if the public were better educated and everyone made an effort to speak up. There’s a limit to the extent to which sin taxes will deter smokers and governments have been utter cowards when it comes to holding tobacco companies accountable. As long as these corporations rake in massive profits and our political representatives bend to their will, the price we all pay for this heinous habit will continue to rise.

Assumption and reduction: how poverty and blame make losers of us all

Ignorance in point form

If you find yourself in agreement with this ugly graphic (I mean really, who designed this?), you need to read this.

This image was posted by right-wing Facebook group 100 Percent FED Up. I’m not really sure what the purpose of fully capitalizing the word ‘FED’ is – maybe because those actually benefiting from Republican policy are DEFINITELY not hungry?

You know what I’m fed up with? People judging. Making assumptions. Hating. Placing blame. I urge you to step back and think about what this graphic is really saying before you nod in agreement, because how we relate to each other becomes the basis for public policy. It drives social services, electoral reform, education, labour law, tax law, etc. It affects us all.

The main concern of the graphic above seems to be the question of responsibility. It raises a valid point that there are things an individual can do to affect their situation. There are ways you can make a bad situation worse or better. There are people who have risen above poverty through their own determination. Personal responsibility is ours to take. And taking responsibility doesn’t mean accepting blame for things outside of our control; it just means accepting the fact that you always have a choice, even if only in your attitude.

Let’s look at the claim above a little more closely. Is it true that if you drink booze, smoke cigarettes, take a hit, get your nails done or get inked, you do not need social assistance? Maybe. That’s the only honest answer you can come up with. The implication, therefore, is that the claim rests on assumptions that anyone in agreement is choosing to ignore. How’s that for taking personal responsibility?

Take the example of a welfare recipient who smokes cigarettes. Regardless of financial standing, people continue to smoke knowing how tremendously bad it is for them. Granted, smokers often shield themselves from learning the specifics (I once stood in line behind a young lady who asked the clerk for a different pack of smokes because she wanted one with a less horrifying picture on it) – but the reason they smoke goes beyond moral ineptitude or weakness; nicotine is a very addictive substance. The fact that money is harder to come by for poor people does not override any chemical dependency they may have – and to expect them to be able to quit because they’re poor is ridiculous. Do you think an alcoholic on welfare is going to think, Gee, this costs x amount of money each month, which the taxpayers are shouldering, so I should just snap out of it? Addicts have characteristically low self-esteem and their addictions often further erode any self-sufficiency and confidence they had to begin with. Not to mention the disastrous effects of cuts to drug treatment programs; these services are crucial in preventing both crime that is directly related to the drug trade and crime committed in order to fund addiction. This is but one example of how drug policy affects the poor in real ways. The war on drugs (a massive failure, now to the admission of most world leaders) is inspired by an understanding (or lack thereof) of the particular struggles faced by those most at risk of being affected by the drug trade – namely, the poor and ethnic minorities.

Getting back to the power of assumptions… Let’s say you overhear a person talking about the welfare they receive and you notice that they got a manicure and have tattoos. I understand your point if this seems questionable. I really do. But does it give you a basis for believing that they would not need social assistance if they hadn’t gotten a manicure or tattoos, and that you can make that determination for not only this person but any and every welfare recipient who has gotten a manicure and tattoos? Let’s say you know for a fact that a particular person would make enough money to support themselves if they didn’t spend their money on such-and-such. In that case, they’re clearly abusing the system. But again, they do not represent other individuals who make their own choices and have their own circumstances to contend with. It’s also worth pointing out the sort of expectation we’re placing on a person who goes hungry or has insufficient nutrition, has had substandard education, lives in a neighbourhood rife with drugs, crime and violence, has limited access to healthcare and health insurance and doesn’t have decent shelter or clothes to wear to a job interview (if one is offered). If you consider the stressors experienced by such an individual, you might forgive them a toke, a beer or a trip to the salon. Prematurely judging one person – and everyone else you lump into the same category – is making a huge leap. Not only is it unfair; it’s illogical.

Besides, if we’re going to judge, how does the average person compare? The only difference between a welfare recipient who lives beyond their means and a gainfully employed person who lives beyond their means is that the welfare recipient doesn’t have good enough credit to borrow money. Let’s say you’re a working person who lives above the poverty line but has accumulated so much personal debt that you have to declare bankruptcy. Your creditor can’t get that money out of you so they write it off, which means they no longer count the money you owe them as an asset. Assets on which they no longer have to pay income tax. Tax money that would have ended up in the public purse. I suspect a lot of people don’t realize this.

Here’s another problem with judging others as unworthy of social assistance: it gives your government a justification to deny help to the people who do need it – without having any idea whatsoever of how many of these people might be abusing the system. Does that make sense to you? In a democratic society, are we supposed to let assumptions and trajectory drive public policy, or are we going to make important decisions that affect the most vulnerable with openness, rationality and honesty?

The most troubling implication of the reasoning of the above claim is that fundamentally, it’s the same type that’s used to form arguments that are racist, sexist or otherwise discriminatory. It’s like watching an obese person walking into McDonald’s and thinking, ‘That must be why they’re fat’. If that person orders a mango smoothie and tells you they’re taking their daily walk and have already dropped 50 pounds, what does your assumption say about you?