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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Smoking

Is banning cancer-sticks really an infringement on human rights? And what’s going on with that camel? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Smoking! Just how cool is it, really? And can blowing smoke up someone’s ass be a good thing? Light ‘em up and let’s see.

Lie #1: Smoking Isn’t Cool

Smoking is so, so fucking cool. It’s got everything — there’s fire involved, a bit of rebellion, a cavalier attitude toward one’s own well-being that’s rakish and sexy… It’s awesome! The actual moment of smoking, anyway — it looks badass as all hell. 

It’s all the stuff around smoking that isn’t quite as cool. Stinking like shit, wheezing, living in the thrall of addiction, hocking up rank globules of thick phlegm, getting gross yellow fingers nobody would ever want near their bathing suit areas, having a house that fuckin’ reeks, getting cancer — they aren’t so rad. Plus, something looking cool (which, again, smoking does, it looks great) doesn’t make it a good idea. The comics character Ghost Rider looks cool, but peeling the flesh from your face and setting your skull on fire is just silly.

Lie #2: “You Gotta Quit Blowin’ Smoke Up My Ass!”

Having smoke blown up one’s ass is just an expression, of course, referring to being told what people think you want to hear, or being given disingenuous compliments by someone who wants to get something out of you.

However, for an 18th-century London drowning victim who seemed like they might just be revivable, having actual smoke blown up their actual ass was very much a thing. Tobacco enemas being administered for medicinal purposes had been observed among Native Americans, and London’s gentleman scientists wanted a go, too. The thinking was that the combination of warmth and stimulation would both dry out the person’s insides and shock the heart into beating faster and stronger. In fact, the Royal Humane Society started out as the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, a group of well-meaning ass-breathers. The practice died out after the discovery that smoking, whatever the orifice of entry, was pretty bad for you, and buttholes have remained largely smoke-free since.

(Of course, if you are saying, “Quit blowin’ smoke up my ass!” to someone who is exhaling a collection of particulates and gases into your rectum against your will — which, yeah, you might be, there’s a bunch of smoking/sex stuff out there and people are pretty bored at the moment — well then, let’s hope they listen to you and stop.)

Lie #3: Banning Smoking Takes Away a Fundamental Human Right

Any time any kind of law or public health initiative is put into place to try and decrease the amount of smokers, there’s a certain section of the population that go a bit “cold dead hands” about the whole thing, seeing it as some sort of rights-infringing, civil-liberty-defying, flag-shitting-on, un-American (or un-British, or un-whereverish) disgrace, like the government wanting fewer people to die of cancer is somehow a dick move.

There are several organizations dedicated to “protecting smokers’ rights” (something the tobacco industry loves), and some of their arguments are perfectly valid — total prohibition doesn’t work, and making cigarettes impossible to come by legally would realistically end up leading to a thriving black market. That’s what’s happening in South Africa at the moment. But they end up bringing in stupid arguments, like “What’s next, banning hammers in case I buy one and hit someone with it?” which makes no sense. A hammer has a constructive purpose, and any harm caused by one comes from either malice or misuse, while cigarettes making people ill is simply cigarettes doing what they do.

The thing with smoking is, it’s not just about the smoker. Passive smoking is a horrible fucking thing, one that inarguably leads to health issues in non-smokers, so laws that restrict smoking in bars or lighting up inside a car with kids present are there to protect people from it. It’s not the nanny state taking away your freedoms, it’s protecting other people’s freedoms to not breathe in fucking poison. The only argument in favor of allowing smoking in bars and exposing staff to enormous amounts of harmful substances is, “I like doing it and think my happiness is more important than any other fucker’s health.”

Think of it like blasting music really loudly. If your next door neighbor really wants to blast Cannibal Corpse at 3 a.m. when you have a meeting in the morning, you aren’t expected to go, “Well, since you really like them, that’s fine” — their desire for the bass to shake the walls shouldn’t supersede your right to get some sleep. Telling them to turn that shit down doesn’t make you a Commie. They can listen to whatever they like, but in a manner that doesn’t impede on those around them. With death metal, it might involve headphones; with smoking, it involves not doing it indoors around other people.

Then there’s the money. Raising taxes on cigarettes is complicated. On the one hand, the idea that making packs more expensive puts people off buying them does hold water — calls to helplines set up to help people quit soar when a raise is announced, and supposedly every 10 percent increase leads to 7 percent fewer smokers. Meanwhile, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that cigarette taxes ultimately made the average smoker happier. However, smoking is addictive, and disproportionately popular among lower earners, so with every tax hike, a poor smoker whose habit remains the same is that bit poorer. It’s something, but it’s far from perfect.

Anyway, smoking won’t ever be outright banned or made illegal — it brings in a lot of money through taxation at both the state and federal level, and with 22 percent of Americans smoking, proposing total prohibition would be a pretty unpopular move by any politician. So you’ll always be allowed to buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke it in your smelly-ass home. You just can’t insist on making other people breathe that shit in.

Lie #4: Filtered Cigarettes Are Safer

For people, sure — now that they don’t contain asbestos and antifreeze, anyway. For the planet? Not so much. About 5.6 trillion cigarettes are smoked every year, and from those, about 4.5 trillion butts end up as litter, because when it comes to littering, smokers are complete turds

That’s about 845,000 tons of butts, of which the filter takes the longest to biodegrade. Most filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that takes years to break down untreated, and some have extra wacky shit in them — plastic menthol-release capsules and stuff like that. 

By the way, you know how filters go all yellowy so you know they’ve leached out a bunch of the bad stuff? That’s all nonsense. Claude Teague, an employee of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, created a filter in 1953 that changed color when smoked regardless of what was actually filtered out, to make smokers feel sure loads of nastiness was being prevented from entering their bodies. He wrote: “While the use of such color change material would probably have little or no effect on the actual efficiency of the filter tip material, the advertising and sales advantages are obvious.” 

It’s not about safety, it’s about selling more cigarettes. Gross.

Lie #5: Cigarettes Are for Grown-Ups

Children shouldn’t smoke, it’s really unhealthy. In an ideal world, they’d all have the attitude of a 14-year-old, pre-fame, pre-Mac Rob McElhenny as he oh-so-coolly rejects the habit.

However, when cigarette advertising is overtly aimed at kids, they’re gonna smoke. Like, when the marketing team of the aforementioned R.J. Reynolds were told to come up with a “contemporary heroic camel mascot” in 1987, they weren’t explicitly told to come up with a character that appealed to children, but the tobacco industry has long been aware of the value of getting smokers to start young — in 1974, that same company talked about targeting 14-year-olds and building brand loyalty as young as possible. The resulting mascot, Joe Camel (aka “Old Joe”) manifestly isn’t aimed at grown-ups. Just as you don’t look at a box of Captain Crunch and think, “Ah, a product aimed at upmarket adult professionals,” a Poochie-like camel being cool as fuck is clearly meant to resonate with children.

And it did, and the company was delighted. When the American Medical Association asked RJR to stop using Joe Camel in their ads, the brand refused, despite evidence that their cigarettes had increased in popularity with underage smokers thirtyfold, and as many kids recognized Joe Camel as Mickey fucking Mouse

(Want your product to appeal to boys? Make it over-the-top cool, like a womanizing camel in Ray-Bans, but chuck in some subliminal dicks as well. The New York Times suggests Joe’s unusual face — “his long straight snout bulging above two pouchy folds” — is a full-on cock and balls, subconsciously appealing to masculinity-obsessed teenagers.)

And, of course, it’s all happening again — a Stanford study concluded Juul vapes were doing exactly the same thing, with “patently youth-oriented marketing.”

The tobacco industry: They sure are a bunch of evil, heartless fucking assholes!