Off Our Butts

How smoking bans extinguish solidarity

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The powers that be say anti-smoking legislation is for our own well-being. Nothing could be further from the truth. The attack on cigarette smoking does not improve the lives of those it claims to protect, be they the “self-destructive” workers who smoke or the moralizing professionals who complain about having to smell them. Anti-smoking legislation is, and always has been, about social control. It is about ratcheting up worker productivity and fostering class hatred, to keep us looking for the enemy in each other instead of in those who are making a killing off cigarettes and anti-smoking campaigns alike. It legitimates the privatization of public space, limits popular assembly, and forces the working class out of political life into private isolation via the social technology of shame. It whitewashes the violence exacted on the poor by the rich to make it all seem like the worker’s own doing. It is, in short, class war by another name.

It is easy to charge hypocrisy on the part of supposedly benevolent governments concerned with “public health.” Alcohol and sugar damage the consumer to an extent comparable to cigarettes, and hurt “non-drinkers” as well—ask any woman familiar with drunk men, or the cane-cutters of Latin America. But the class character of the war on smoking is so pronounced that one begins to wonder just who the “public” in “public health” is anyway. It certainly does not include Nicaraguan plantation workers, nor most black Americans—unless we can call police murdering Eric Garner for selling single cigarettes some sort of “pro-life” operation. Of course, cops in the United States also kill black men simply for walking around and breathing, so maybe cigarette packs should read: “Smoking Is a Leading Cause of Death Unless You Are a Black Man, in Which Case SMOKE ’EM IF YOU GOT ’EM.”

Neither does the “public” protected by public health initiatives include people of the working class, no matter what color they are. If it did, initiatives would be directed first and foremost at the process of production, not consumption. And I mean production of everything. After all, anyone who works for minimum wage already expects organ damage, physical pain, a reduced quality of life, and an untimely death. And that, no doubt, is why the “If You Smoke You’ll Get Sick” warnings on packs aren’t working very well to inspire this particular group to quit: working shit jobs for shit pay is making the working class sicker, faster. And yet the promoter of “public health” does not concern herself with how the workers must soon enter the building to demolish rotten fiberboard all day. She is interested only in what they consume outside the door on their brief ten-minute breaks. Why should this be?

The Polluting Poor

This apparent contradiction clears up once we understand that the public health campaigns of modern government have never been about protecting everyone. They are, rather, about protecting privileged citizens from the dangerously contaminating poor. “Health and safety” provided the rationale for corralling dispossessed peasants into England’s workhouses and slave-trading navy, just as “health and safety” was the slogan of British imperialists working to justify colonialism and the slave ships themselves. In fact, it seems when civilized governments discuss “health and safety,” what often follows is “sickness and death,” so we are wise to stay on guard.

Public health campaigns have never been about protecting everyone. They are, rather, about protecting the most privileged citizens from the dangerously contaminating poor.

From early modern times, the emerging capitalist bourgeoisie worked to articulate its particular value in contrast to the “hedonistic” aristocrats and the “irrational” underclass, both imagined as grotesque. The masses, in particular, came to be defined by a supposed excessive enjoyment of bodily pleasures. This was in pointed contrast to the new self-denying entrepreneur, who pretended not to have any bodily functions. Orgasms, eating, sweating, and shitting were impolite, dirty things, which anxious bourgeois moralists projected onto others in a fit of collective neurosis.

Indeed, women, the poor, and “primitive” colonial subjects were all conveniently constructed as porous and leaking “mouth-breathers” driven by primal desires, while elites were rational, well-contained, and ultimately decoupled from the body and its practical functioning. The poor or racialized woman, imagined as spreading disease with her unbridled sexuality and infecting touch, was of particular concern to the new social hygienists. Hence the trope of dangerous servant women such as “Typhoid Mary,” the New York cook who was quarantined for more than two decades after being apprehended in 1915 as a “symptomless carrier.”

This social imaginary persists today in many guises, one of which is the dehumanization of the polluting smoker via her depiction as a series of dismembered rotting body parts (such as the nasty impaired lungs we keep seeing in anti-smoking propaganda), all in the interest of public health. Car emissions, soda pop, pharmaceutical medications, and nano-weaponized drones all have the potential to disturb the healthful existence of the young white bourgeois child, yet her mother supports these ventures with her taxes and consumer choices while spitting insults at the smoker waiting at a bus stop: she’s just a toxic bag of body parts, after all.

I recently saw a woman brandishing the Mercedes Benz of strollers walk through a sea of idling traffic toward a smoker only to say the smoker was “murdering her baby” by polluting the air. Such an act has nothing to do with protecting children, and everything to do with venting bourgeois malaise by attacking powerless people whom state authorities have constructed as abject and undeserving of respect. These same state authorities allow corporations to poison our food and water supply—so of course they don’t mind if we lose our shit over some smoking neighbors instead. Indeed, the mouth-breathing neighbor with nasty black lungs is apparently more threatening than cigarette smoke itself: although the smoky wisp that has not yet been inhaled is more toxic, the great danger to non-smokers, according to public-health authorities, is second-hand smoke. Ultimately, the cigarette stands in for what bourgeois bystanders have always been most afraid of—the notion that they, too, have bodies, and that these bodies materially coexist with, and indeed create, the “vile” working class.

Public Space, Re-classified

I am not suggesting any sinister conspiracy of technocrats here, but rather a confluence of vested interests. The push to ban smoking in the workplace in the 1980s did indeed stem from research on “Increasing Productivity Through On-Site Smoking Control”—but of course not everyone concerned about tobacco was a profit-seeking vampire, nor were foes of workplace smoking specifically targeting the poor. Smokers at the time were still considered “classy.”

No fun, not ever: WWII-era posters warned wholesome young men and women of the dangers of STDs.
No fun, not ever: WWII-era posters warned wholesome young men and women of the dangers of STDs.

This is why the eighties campaign to vilify smoking was one and the same with a bid to de-class it. Much as women were sold sophistication by way of Benson & Hedges, Holiday, and Parliament, with men offered similar (simulations of) power and mobility in Marlboro Country, cigarettes were to be made unappealing through new associations with foulness, odor, dirt, depravity, uncontrollable desire, and the inescapability of body parts—concepts that the bourgeoisie, in their efforts at distinction, had long projected onto the racialized working poor. In other words, cigarettes were symbolically associated with the lower classes before the poor were the majority of those (still) smoking, this being part and parcel of constructing the act of smoking as unhealthy. Smoking was consistently depicted as both unhealthy and an emerging professional-life taboo that might derail an eager yuppie’s career advancement. “Cigarettes May Burn Holes in Your Career” was the alarm sounded in a 1985 magazine feature in Career World, with other savvy works of eighties career counseling echoing the same theme.

Now, in 2016, cigarette smoking in North America is indeed more common among people living in poverty. They smoke because they do not have the time or money to eat properly, because other, more respectable mind-altering drugs are not available to them, because it is something to enjoy. They do it because their jobs (when they still exist) are so boring and physically painful that they would rather die. Yet professionals in the wellness industry routinely describe their smoking social inferiors as “stupid” and “irrational” on the basis of their supposedly self-undermining lifestyle choices.

It’s by now an iron law that whenever the poor are discussed, so are their “bad life choices.” If professionals can’t do something properly or fast enough, they can readily avail themselves of a diagnosis of one or another “health problem”—even something as vague and generic as “stress” or “burnout.” These are conditions that are imagined to have stricken them randomly—as opposed to a malignant, self-inflicted malady tied to their lifestyle, upbringing, or that sketchy antidepressant they stupidly decided to take. Even though so many children of the professional class clearly have asthma due in part to the persistent bourgeois hygiene neurosis (the antibacterial hand gel all but mandated by this neurosis being a proven contributing factor), they and their germophobe parents deserve empathy, time off, and specific disability rights. By contrast, working-class smokers deserve only reproach and are asked to tiptoe around the expansive, socio-moral and self-induced sensitivities of the rich.

This wildly differential diagnostic treatment, which draws on age-old caricatures of the poor as case studies in lapsed self-control, parallels the entirely differential structure of empathy in the working-class workplace: whenever low-income workers can’t do something properly or fast enough, they are simply fired, and anything that would otherwise qualify as a health problem or disability is chalked up to “personal failure.” After all, this is someone who made the “bad choice” to live in poverty in the first place.

It is no coincidence that these same workers are widely perceived to deserve the exemptions of “health” as little as they deserve proper pay. “Public health” has always reinforced class divisions through such unequal attributions of “choice” versus “constraint.” As a university student, I could not get a proper note from the Office of Students with Disabilities prescribing some time off to quit smoking because, as the nurse said, “Starting smoking is something you chose to do.” My peer with back problems also chose to get into the car that crashed during her European holiday, yet it seems to be taken for granted that professionals simply “need” vast cosmopolitan mobility. (One can almost hear a public health flunky confronted with this counterexample gasping at the suggestion that this health outcome was also, in some deep sense of things, an earned one: “You can’t suggest that was her own doing! . . . One needs to get around somehow!”)

No equivalent concept of structural “constraint” is applied to the working-class smoker, who is rather imagined to enjoy (but mishandle) infinite power and choice. This is so even though the smoker in question is brought up to smoke just as the jetsetter is to fly, and continues to do so largely because state and capital consider her undeserving of food. In fact, the smoker needs nicotine to function just as the suburban professional needs his car, and if she can’t perform at work for even just two days, it will actually matter. She may lose what little food access she has. Furthermore, this smoker’s daily activities, paid and otherwise, which would be curtailed by the pains of nicotine withdrawal, are generally important for the greater social good. An obvious early casualty is the caregiving labor involved in the “second shift” duties of working mothers in the domestic sphere. Huffington Post writer Linda Tirado says it all:

When I am too tired to walk one more step, I can smoke and go for another hour. When I am enraged and beaten down and incapable of accomplishing one more thing, I can smoke and I feel a little better, just for a minute. It is the only relaxation I am allowed. It is not a good decision, but it is the only one that I have access to. It is the only thing I have found that keeps me from collapsing or exploding.

And so the lowest-paid workers continue to smoke, with public smoking restrictions serving only to inspire working-class shame and ruling-class belligerence. Whether because workers smoke or their friends do, the traditional places of working-class congregation are now closed to them—the pub, the diner, the park, and even the sidewalk. It is no coincidence that fifteen feet from the door stands the gutter. And how convenient for the boss that shooing smoking workers from the door downstairs makes it less likely for them to bond in conversation.

Today’s student left is unfortunately complicit. Its adherents implement “scent- free spaces” prohibiting perfume, tobacco, and industrial odors in their organizing meetings, because it is apparently more important that the fraction of bourgeois professionals with allergies participates in their “anti-capitalist” social movements than the majority of all people living below the poverty line. They call these maneuvers “accessibility policies.”

Once, at an Occupy Wall Street assembly, standing six feet beyond the last concentric circle in the parking lot, I lit up a cigarette. In short order, I was asked to leave. I insisted on Occupying. Such are the grinding wars of public accommodation in the United States—a country whose people are so poorly entitled to any public space that simply occupying a park is a big deal. In other countries around the world, workers do that sort of thing all the time. Maybe the American resistance could go and do likewise—if, that is, its leaders would welcome workers to their meetings, cigarettes and all.

Smokers of the World, Exhale!

If the lifestyle lords of the ruling class want us to quit smoking, they can provide us with the resources required to spend a quarter of our waking hours drinking kale smoothies, doing yoga, and attending trauma therapy just like them. As long as they fail to meet such elementary demands of mutual social obligation, they deserve much worse than a little second-hand smoke. Meanwhile, we members of the smoking class might consider using bourgeois paranoia to our advantage. We might start organizing “Smoke-Ins” fifteen feet away from high-end daycares, exhaling in their general direction until all kitchen and cleaning staff are paid five times the minimum wage plus full health and dental coverage. Persons of the educated class may suggest this is “mean” or “violent,” of course, at which point we may direct them to the reputable oeuvres of Frantz Fanon and Walter Benjamin.

We might start organizing “Smoke-Ins” fifteen feet away from high-end daycares, until all kitchen and cleaning staff are paid five times the minimum wage.

If the government really cared about working-class smokers’ health, our political elites could easily fund our well-paid vacations, free therapy, and other support services by slashing corporate subsidies. Instead, they direct bourgeois unhappiness our way. Instead, they blame the poor for contaminating the world, while funding paramilitary offensives in defense of filthy transnational mining projects and neocolonial oil-and-resource wars—conflicts that will make the world much less safe for their children than a smoldering cigarette ever could. Indeed, even if government did offer smoking citizens the most tempting of Golden Handshakes, we might nonetheless exercise our prerogative to refuse their dirty money and blow smoke in their faces instead.

In the meantime, my last words for the smokers are simply: Never let anyone make you feel ashamed. You should be able to smoke precisely as much as you want. This is not because mass-produced cigarettes or “Big Tobacco” are beautiful things. They are not. It is, rather, because we are beautiful and precious. Our lives are beautiful and precious. Our lives, despite what the bosses say, are actually for our own enjoyment, not to make others’ lives easier, cleaner, and lazier. As long as the value of professionals’ lives is not measured primarily in terms of their effects on others, but according to their pleasure, so shall our own lives and value be measured.

Like them, we shall pursue our own desires for pleasure no matter how whimsical, and if our desire is to smoke, then offended professionals can just hold their breath for once—perhaps using this blessed interval of silence to meditate on their thieving class and its own grotesquely swollen “carbon footprint.” If state and capital are going to steal our precious energies and vast hours of our lives to line their pockets with profit, leaving us with poor sleep, insufficient rent money, and a diet of 7-Eleven specials as we provide the country’s most basic services, the very least we deserve is to enjoy our cigarettes in peace. So if anyone asks, it’s not that smoking should be permitted because cigarettes can be proved an absolute good, which they cannot, but simply because for the time being we happen to smoke them. We might call this giving professionals a taste of their own entitlement. Heaven forbid they choke on it.

This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit devoted to journalism about inequality.

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