Stuck one day in bottlenecked traffic, I let my eyes wander over an ad sprawled along the side of a bus. It was sponsored by the California Department of Health and depicted a doe-eyed little boy with the copy “Steven’s father wasn’t the only victim of the tobacco industry.”

Then an ad came on the radio, sponsored by the same bureaucracy, in which a hospitalized smoker recovering from an operation naively asks his doctor why the tobacco companies keep insisting nicotine is not addictive.

Well, as Sky Masterson says in “Guys And Dolls,” the world is full of people ready to sell you a gold watch for a dollar. So to the bedridden naif I say: who cares what the tobacco industry says? — you know better.

California’s new pathos-heavy, intellect-insulting anti-smoking campaign is presumably being paid for by tobacco settlements. While this is far better than having taxpayers pay for it, it’s still a waste of money. Once and for all, smokers are not helpless victims in the hands of evil, money-grubbing tobacco companies.

It’s impossible to grow up in America today and not know that, as sure as the earth is round, smoking is deleterious to your health. Smokers know full well the consequences of their choosing to smoke. And yet the anti-smoking lobby cannot accept this because it flies in the face of logic. So to shed a little light on the subject — hey, anybody got a light? — let us turn to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In “Notes from the Underground,” the nameless narrator, whom my comp. lit. professor dubbed Underground Man, sets out to destroy once and for all the notion that man is a rational creature. Underground Man takes on the recently published “What Is To Be Done?” by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, which is chock full of Class A liberal faith in the ability to reform humankind (that is, if we just spend enough money). Chernyshevsky argues that once you convince an individual of what is in his best interest, he will always act in accordance. Well, leave it to Underground Man to sniff out the odiferous sediment in that proposal.

In truth, it is practically the duty of every individual to act in contradiction to his own best interest, counters Underground Man, in order to prove that man has free will and is not “a sprig in the barrel organ” of determinism. And so it is that every day people smoke, ride motorcycles without helmets, fail to buckle their safety belts, engage in unprotected sex, have affairs with interns, and perform countless other high-risk acts fully cognizant of the consequences.

The dogmatic puritan naysayer is as much a part of America’s confused history as the renegade Marlboro Man who tamed the Wild West with guts and self-reliance. So in our secular age in which morality has been all but eradicated from public discourse, certain people need a way to claim they are holier than thou. And so the body supersedes the soul as the yardstick by which it is determined whether or not you’re going to heaven. And there are proselytizers everywhere who can’t just leave well enough alone. Did you have more than six ounces of red wine last night? Are you sure you want that weekly cigar? Gasp! — is that real butter? Hey, Joneses: you’re not acting in your own best interest!

As with alcohol once before, tobacco has become the supreme evil threatening our precious children, who may suddenly decide to start smoking if exposed to too many ads depicting cuddly cartoon dromedaries. Once again it comes down to this: smokers are not responsible for their addiction. The tobacco execs, a greedy band of wheezing Beelzebubs, have hooked them for life, as we plaintively echo the cry of Baudelaire, “It is the Devil who holds the strings that move us!”

When I say people choose to smoke, I know whereof I speak. Last year at age 28 I decided that cigarettes would make a fine accessory to life. They’ve long been the trusted companion of statesmen, soldiers, reporters, and all those who pace the wee small hours, their minds full of weighty ruminations. Since then I’ve averaged about three cigarettes per day.

Whatever the effects on my health in the long run, I am willing to trade for the calmed nerves, better digestion, and sweeter moments in the short run. And frankly, I think the addiction aspect is overrated and primarily psychological in most people. Television, for example, is far more addiction-forming. In fact, it is in your best interest that it be avoided at all cost.

From the Sonoma County Independent, September 2, 1999.

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