Last Cigarettes

Glass House
Margaret Morton, from the book Glass House, 2004. Courtesy of Penn State University Press.

When I was sixteen and not yet a smoker, Allen Ginsberg gave a poetry reading at my Manhattan private school. He performed Blake’s “Tiger” self-accompanied on a hurdy-gurdy, and I still hear his stroke-slowed slurry voice whenever I read the poem. For his next act, he produced a pair of clacking Malian or Xhosa rhythm sticks and he sang a little jingle of his own:

Don’t smoke, don’t smoke, don’t smoke, click-click,
Smoke dope, smoke dope, smoke dope, smoke dope,
click-click, don’t smoke, don’t smoke, don’t smoke.
Don’t smoke, click-click, click-click, click-click,
Suck cock, suck cock, suck cock, suck cock,
suck clit, suck clit, suck clit, suck clit,
Click-click, click-click, don’t smoke.

In this gentle and permissive way we were enjoined to get high on pot and take up oral sex, but not do any favors for Philip Morris. Now I know that when shaggy, Dionysian Allen Ginsberg takes on the role of forbidding father, and you still take up the habit, you must really be on the wrong side of history.

In a reactionary age characterized by the end of public-service progressivism as we know it, the few who cling with hope to New Deal values of a state concerned to improve the lives of its citizens can also hang on to studies like Oxford’s International Smoking Statistics, a report that records a consistent decline in European and American smoking since a high point in the early 1960s. Even if the data is skewed by underreporting, the progressive can find comfort by noting that the impulse to lie about smoking is greater than ever. Shameful denial to total eclipse is but a step.

From the standpoint of medical enlightenment, the end of smoking is a necessary part of the American civilizing process, like the decline of laudanum use, the advent of hand-washing, and the introduction of health inspections for food plants and restaurants at the beginning of the 20th century. We are living through a long moment that ought to prolong, if not improve, American life. We may still gorge ourselves, drive big cars, spread gluttonously over the earth, and kill for sport, but smoking is taboo. That marine photographed smoking a cigarette over his M16 in the ruins of Fallujah—an icon that returned us briefly to that “Greatest Generation” when cigarettes were the soldier’s friend and soldiers were our friends—led newspapers to print dozens of angry letters protesting the glorification of smoking. It has now become possible for us to imagine a smokeless future, as people once less modestly imagined an end to poverty, the abolition of private property, or universal justice. And smokers too, defiant or ashamed, can see it coming. Whether we want to or not, it’s time to quit.

Granted the liquidation of smoking is being achieved mostly through an unpleasantly punitive and regressive campaign of individual reeducation. The tobacco companies have proved resilient, despite lawsuits. They benefit from America’s aggressive international-trade policy, which slaps sanctions on nations that adopt antismoking laws now common in the US, and they wisely have spread their holdings to include just about everything we put in our mouths: processed cheese, light beer, cheap cookies, imported chocolates. So the burden falls on the individual. Higher sales taxes disproportionately affect the poor, who continue to smoke the most.

It’s difficult to convince anyone in the hypersanitary middle classes to take an interest in the injustice of this, since smokers have become a class unto themselves, an embodiment of abjection. Recent laws, like California’s and New York City’s bans on smoking in bars and restaurants, treat individual smokers as bearers of lethal weapons, subject to more stringent pollution regulations than automobiles or coal-fired power plants. A self-destructive act has been turned into an act of aggression, further stigmatizing smokers, already—we know—a very guilty party. Even the tobacco companies believe in the importance of health and fitness. A former Philip Morris CEO, without apparent irony, described himself as a “physical cultist” and claimed that someone who’s fit can do a better job.

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