Blowing smoke at freedom

By Gord Gekko
web posted August 1997

My first year of university was great.

I had a daily ritual which would consist of a friend who would pick me and the rest of our crew up at our homes every morning for classes. We would get to university, park at the lot furthest away from our classes (it was the cheapest lot), and then walk our way to class.

We had a hallway called the Bowling Alley, the only explanation I could ever get for the nickname was that it was long (but then aren't most hallways in schools?). During my first year you could smoke in that hallway, as well as the cafeteria which was called the Great Hall, and a few other places on campus. I would walk down the Great Hall every morning, smoking, and utilizing the ashtrays built into the walls. By the time I got down to the other end of the hallway, I would be finished my cigarette. A few seconds later I was in class.

My second year saw smoking banned from that hallway and my mood grow noticeably more sour. Through the four years at the school, smoking was slowly banned from every part of the university. By the end of the four years I hated the place.

Laurentian, I suppose, had the right to ban smoking on campus. If you forget all of that garbage about "public ownership", you realize that someone ultimately has to be in charge of the place. The Board of Governors bit the bullet and banned smoking, alienated about 30 per cent of the population, and weathered the small tempest afterwards. While the Board may have had the right to ban smoking on "their" property, does the government have the right to impose its will in place of individual responsibility? In the United States, and no doubt soon in Canada, it apparently does.

This is hardly the first time that government has decided that it should be in the business of imposing their morality on a population. This century saw massive effort by our governments to legislate morality, in effect to protect people from themselves.

The parallels between the late 1990s and early 1900s seem all to close. In the late 1800s and early 1900s groups across the United States were formed to combat what they saw was the number one sign of social decay -- saloons. Groups like the Anti-Saloon League of America, formed in Ohio, spread across the country. The government was urged to action to combat drinking and the ASL managed to get a majority of anti-alcohol members elected to the U.S. Congress.On December 22, 1917, with majorities well in excess of the two-thirds requirement, Congress submitted to the states the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors." By January 1919 ratification was complete, with 80 percent of the members of 46 state legislatures recorded in approval.

It's a matter of public record that all the 18th Amendment did was give actor Robert Stack his start when he played Prohibition era hero Elliot Ness and rise to the modern Mafia.

In the end, poor enforcement of the law was responsible for its demise. In Canada, the dry laws of 1919 were soon repealed because of economic pressures, not the least of which were the opportunities to sell liquor to citizens of the dry U.S. Provincial laws after repeal did, however, provide for government-owned stores and for local option.

Even to this day there continues to be a Prohibition Party, dedicated to outlawing the manufacture and sale of adult beverages.

The 1990s sees a zealotry which makes the mediaeval Crusades seem like a weekend trip to the country. Across the United States, states are once again taking aim at something that they see to be a social ill. The federal government has been placing limitations on tobacco companies for years and just recently signed an agreement with the companies which promises to shackle them even further. In Canada, talks between two provinces have begun, looking for a way to sue these companies to help recover health costs.

Both moves are based on the same underlying false assumption. The 18th Amendment carried the assumption that legislation can keep people from drinking. Indeed, it did have an effect. Statistics show that Prohibition reduced the annual per capita consumption from 9.8 liters (2.6 gal) of absolute alcohol during the period before state laws were effective (1906-1910) to 3.7 liters (0.97 gal) after Prohibition in 1934. But while the amount of alcohol consumed did lessen, government officials clearly underestimated the resourcefulness of people who want something that cannot be purchased legally.

Government officials are making exactly the same mistake today. Despite clear and unimpeachable evidence which states that rates of smoking for every demographic group are lower today then they were just ten years ago, the government has once again decided that only government action can keep people from smoking. Even youth are smoking less today then they did just a few years ago, but still the government says that stopping teens from starting to smoke is one of their highest objectives.

It used to be that individualism and responsibility were sacred beliefs. Through years of erosion by the forces of collectivist thought both have been whittled down so that they can be packaged as concepts by rock stars and politicians. In our yesteryears it was argued that the individual alone could change the world, now it's believed that people cannot function without society thinking for them.

We used to be thinking beings, but some now posit that we are at the mercy of our bodies and malicious information spread by the tobacco companies. Using those two elements as justification, they argue that refined imagery and chemical stimulation leaves us helpless to resist the seductively evil advertising of Joe Camel or the Marlboro man. Once drawn in by the shiny objects in tobacco advertising, those who smoke are not responsible for their actions, the logic inevitably leads one to, because Imperial Tobacco has taken away all independent thought.

And so government acts. In the United States the tobacco companies agreed to pay a 'mere' $10-billion a year (rising eventually to $15-billion), stop most advertising, and have nicotine regulated as a drug by the scrupulously unbiased Food and Drug Administration. That theoretically puts a halt to lawsuits by the attorney generals of around 40 states. North of the border in Canada, socialist governed British Columbia has also made noise recently, looking for other provinces to join it in a similar attempt to extort money from legal businesses.

A doctor with a major Canadian anti-drug group recently endorsed the idea of teaching students how to smoke marijuana safely. Although marijuana has not been proven to be physically addicting, and no physical withdrawal symptoms occur when its use is discontinued, psychological dependence does develop. Chronic marijuana users are said to develop an “amotivational syndrome” characterized by passivity, decreased motivation, and preoccupation with drug taking. Like alcohol intoxication, marijuana intoxication impairs reading comprehension, memory, speech, problem-solving ability, and reaction time. The effects on the intellect of long-term use are unknown. Smoking, on the other hand, has been banned on school grounds and extensive anti-smoking seminars are presented.

Both should be legal and free of government intervention.

And so from personal responsibility we, at the urging of our governments, now lunge to place the blame of our own problems at the feet of evil and faceless big business. How can it be your fault that you chose to smoke when the CEO of Imperial Tobacco is a more satisfying (and richer) target?

But this essay isn't against those who blame others for their problems. It is instead a call to the last few remaining thinkers out there who realize that government movement against cigarettes one day could lead to government movement on another vice the next day. Isn't alcohol responsible for a lot of spousal abuse, impaired driving and various maladies of the body? Hmmm, says Health Minister Allan it is...

If you advocate movement against tobacco by the government, you are in the fight against individualism. When you argue biological determinism (cigarettes are addictive and therefore we must be protected from that potentially addictive behavior), you argue against individualism. When you argue that a person cannot possibly avoid smoking as a habit because of the Joe Camel hat they once saw, you are arguing against individualism.

And when you argue for the government's right to begin making decisions you are giving them carte blanche to make future decisions that you may not agree with. Not long ago the government promised that warning labels would be the last imposition on tobacco companies. Who knows what the next step will be in the battle to protect you from yourself.

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