The 4-billion-packs-a-year habit

Once upon a time in Los Angeles, a guy named Marvin came up with an idea that seemed small and silly but turned out to be brilliant.

Marvin Braude was a city councilman, an ex-smoker on a mission.

He won approval of the first local law anywhere in the U.S. that banned smoking – a law that focused only on elevators at a time when smoking was common in restaurants, offices, and on airliners – almost everywhere.

Over the coming decades, step by incremental step, the anti-smoking crusade swept America, succeeding in creating smoke-free eateries, stadiums and many other public places.

Today, very few Americans would welcome a revival of the smoky culture that still prevails in Việt Nam and many other countries.

I offer this observation in light of a recent report from the Việt Nam Tobacco Association that found that Việt Nam consumed about 4.174 billion packs of cigarettes in 2012.

An impressive figure, but not in a good way.

That works out to almost 47 packs for every man, woman and child in the country.

And while young children don’t smoke, keep in mind that all, even the unborn, are exposed to the smoke of others.

smokingA man smoking in a public place in Hà Nội

The tobacco group also reported that cigarette use has been on the rise since 2010, driven in part by the popularity of smuggled and contraband cigarettes.

Now, unless you are personally enriched by the tobacco industry, unless you are a nicotine pusher, both legal and illegal, this is all terrible news.

The nicotine delivered by cigarettes is highly addictive, and the smoke, over time, may result in various cancers, emphysema, and heart ailments.

I’m not really saying anything here that most people don’t already know.

So it was a bit troubling to read the Tuổi Trẻ report on tobacco and note that authorities did not highlight the deleterious effect of smoking, but instead focused on the loss of tax revenues because of the prevalence of contraband cigarettes.

There are no taxes on the black market.

Well, yes.

That is a problem.

But the narrow focus on lost tax revenues suggests that the priorities here are seriously out of whack.

What Việt Nam really needs more are public policies that discourage the culture of smoking – that whittle away at the nation’s 4-billion-packs-a-year habit.

I am old enough to remember America’s old pro-smoke culture.

I just took it for granted; it was literally in the air.

As a young man, I was once caught in a middle seat of an airliner with smokers on either side of me, puffing away.

Elsewhere, I learned how kissing a smoker could be like licking an ashtray.

I remember when restaurants did not offer “no smoking” sections.

I fondly recall a friend using a large plastic menu to blow smoke back at an offending diner.

The guy got the message and stubbed out his cigarette.

Over time, my menu-waving friend and crusading Councilman Braude won the war in Americas.

That isn’t to suggest that tobacco has been eradicated.

Far from it.

Rather, the triumph is the recognition that the right of non-smokers to breathe untainted air exceeds the privilege of smokers to foul it.

Why do people start smoking, anyway?

This, again, is no mystery.

Teenagers, especially, do so because they think it makes them look cool – and often wind up addicted, wishing they could quit.

I distinctly remember my first smoke in junior high, trying to fit in, trying to be cool.

I remember one of the cool guys laughing at me when I coughed.

Fortunately, I also had a friend who called cigarettes “cancer sticks.”

He wasn’t cool, but he was right.

Việt Nam, with such a young population, needs to promote the idea that smoking is expensive, self-destructive and stupid – not cool.

By the time I met Marvin Braude, he’d pushed through all sorts of laws to limit smoking.

His political ally, Congressman Henry Waxman, was making life miserable for Big Tobacco, exposing their duplicitous efforts to promote smoking and addiction.

Waxman, like Braude, is an ex-smoker – and he continues his crusade today.

Waxman has earned a reputation as one of America’s most effective members of congress.

He has been nicknamed Hollywood Henry, because of the district he represents, and also Henry the Hedgehog, because of tenacity and the plain fact that he isn’t Hollywood handsome.

Once I asked Waxman why he started smoking.

“I wanted to look cool.”

He said simply.

Then he smiled:

“And I figured I needed all the help I could get.”




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