Sunday, April 13, 2014

Smoke and Mirrors

or, Why Do People Have to Suck?

It’s been a while since I had a good old-fashioned rant on this blog.  As one gets older, one must keep one’s blood pressure down, you know.  So perhaps I’m just overdue.  But this new ban on e-cigarettes by the Los Angeles City Council is just too much.

(Warning: If crazy ranting and/or dropping the F-bomb offends you, please bail out now.  I must remind you yet again of the name of the blog.)

Some background: I started smoking at 18—later than many, I suppose, but long enough ago now that it’s unlikely that my habits are going to change at this point.  I was in my freshman year of college, my first time living away from home.  I had a roommate who was a bit of a dick, college classes were tough (not unexpected, but it’s one thing to know how tough they’re going to be and quite another thing to experience it), my grandfather had just died, and my situation with my parents was very rocky at the time.  For some reason, walking around campus late at night one night, feeling pretty crappy about life in general, I had a sudden urge to smoke.  I have no idea why: the only time I’d ever even tried cigarettes before was under the bleachers when I was 14 or 15 once, and I’d absolutely hated it.  No one in my family smoked: not parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nor cousins.  My grandfather’s elder brother was a 3-pack-a-day man, so I’d heard, but I’d never even met the man, or didn’t remember if I had.  Both my grandparents on my mother’s side used to, I was told, but they quit well before I was born.  My dad had one friend who did, and we all felt it was disgusting, myself included.  There is no earthly reason I can come up with why I would have thought smoking would help relieve my stress, or that I wouldn’t choke to death just trying it.  But, for whatever reason, I had a sudden urge, and I went to the store, and bought a pack of Yves St. Laurent menthols.  And, if you know anything about cigarettes, you’re probably snickering to yourself about now, because YSL is typically considered a “woman’s” brand.  But I quite liked them, as it turned out, and never had a problem with smoking “girly” cigarettes (nor with drinking “girly” drinks, although that’s a whole different topic).

For about 8 years I smoked anywhere from half a pack to a full pack a day of menthols.  Then a friend (and fellow smoker) convinced me to try CigArrest with him.  I found that all the herbal/homeopathic crap was totally unnecessary for me; the behavior modification tips were what really worked in my case.  Soon I was smoke-free, while my friend had relapsed.

I stayed off the smokes for 3 or 4 years, but stress has a way of creeping up on you.  And I still had that weird urge that I couldn’t shake whenever I got stressed.  I picked up a pack of cloves one night, telling myself that they weren’t “real” cigarettes.  But of course cloves have just as much tobacco as other smokes, plus they tear your throat up.  (This is because the eugenol in the cloves temporarily numbs your throat, which allows you take in more smoke more directly, which leaves you in a pretty sad state once the mild anaesthetic effect wears off.)  I eventually made a deal with myself: I would go back to smoking, but not menthols any more.  I would smoke ultra-light regulars in the hopes that I wouldn’t enjoy them as much and therefore wouldn’t smoke as much.

Believe it or not, that actually worked.  For the next roughly 15 years, I smoked no more than a pack a week, on average.  During stressful times, I would creep up to perhaps two packs a week, but during calmer times I might drop as low as half a pack a week.  I was pretty happy with this level of smoking.  It kept me calm and sane, and it fulfilled my worldview of “everything in moderation.”  (Yes, even smoking isn’t all bad.)  So everything was good until another friend convinced me to stop smoking with him, and this time the method was e-cigarettes.

I love e-cigarettes.  I can smoke whenever I like, for as little as I like.  It used to be a chore to have to finish a cigarette, but I also hated wasting them, especially since they’re stupidly expensive.  Now I can have a puff or two and put it away.  Or I can smoke for half an hour straight if I want to.  Except I’m not actually smoking: e-cigarettes use flavored water vapor.  So not only do I not get any smoke, neither does anyone around me.  It’s just water vapor, which my exhalations contain anyway, except you can see it ... no different from when I breathe out on a cold day.  And I’m paying less now, and I’m back to menthols, and I’m “smoking” more while smoking less, ’cause I’m not smoking at all.  Also, I’m not even inhaling any nicotine.  Oh, sure: many—most, even—e-cigarettes have nicotine.  But you can get them without, if you so choose.  And I do so choose.  As it happens, I don’t need the nicotine any more than I needed the herbal whatever-it-was: once again, it’s the psychological aspect that’s key.  I just need something to puff on.

So I’ve been doing e-cigs for a few years now, and you can see why this kind of crap from the LA City Council really chaps my ass.  First the anti-smokers told us that the tobacco companies were adding all sorts of horrible crap to cigarettes and that’s why they were so terrible for you.  The tobacco industry responded by coming out with additive-free brands like American Spirit, and even changing some existing brands to be additive-free, like Winston (both of which I’ve smoked).  The anti-smokers promptly freaked out and pursued legal action against both brands.  These suits were designed to force the companies to admit that additive-free cigarettes were ”‘no safer or healthier’ than other tobacco products.”  So, wait: the additives make them bad for us, but taking them out isn’t better?  What kind of fucked up logic is that?

And now somebody comes along and invents a “cigarette” that doesn’t even involve any actual smoke.  The anti-smokers were counfounded by this new developement for a while.  Inhaling and exhaling water vapor certainly isn’t bad for you.  It isn’t even bad for anyone standing next to you.  How the hell can we object to this, they wondered?  We better find some way: if people continue to exercise their freedoms in this way, anarchy will surely ensue!

So, here we are, with the LA City Council apparently not the first nor likely the last.  It was damned difficult, but they finally thought of something to object to:

Foes of e-cigarettes said they threaten to make smoking socially acceptable after years of public opinion campaigns to discourage the habit. Young people who get hooked on the nicotine in e-cigarettes may then turn to tobacco use, said Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Ah, yes, the classic “slippery slope” argument.  We all know how awesome those are.  Because they don’t require any proof.  Hell, they don’t even have to make any sense.  Allow gay marriage and pretty soon people will be wanting to marry turtles.  That follows, right?  Let me ask you this: what is more likely?  That e-cigarettes will get people off smoking in such numbers that it will radically reduce the amount of second-hand smoke you’re exposed to?  Or that, by exposing children to them, we’ll teach them that there are ways to be responsible with your vices in such a manner so as not to endanger yourself or others?  Oh, wait: those are both positive outcomes of staying the fuck away from my e-cig.

What I can’t understand is how I became a persecuted minority.  And not only a persecuted minority, but one that it is perfectly socially acceptable to persecute.  Encouraged, even.  Let’s think about this for a minute. Every day, you breathe a metric fuck-ton more car exhaust than you do second-hand smoke (and that was still true back in the days before smoking was banned everywhere).  But we don’t disallow driving in public, do we?  And then there’s alcohol: even if you believe the wildest statistics about the dangers of second-hand smoke, they pale in comparison to your danger of being hit by a drunk driver or shot by a drunk gun-owner.  So do we ban alcohol?  God forbid we let the little children see us driving, or drinking ... who knows what that could lead to?

I don’t work within the city limits of LA, so I’m not banned from using my e-cigarette at work.  Nonetheless, my boss asked me to stop because of complaints (more likely a single complaint) from one or more co-workers.  On the one hand, this doesn’t bug me that much.  Hey, I go around everywhere with no shoes on: I’m already used to people being dicks about my lifestyle choices.  But on the other hand, it’s really dispiriting to be punished for making such a positive change in your life.  Imagine that you embarked on a fantastic new effort to get into shape by riding your bike to work every day, and, just when it was starting to work and really show some positive results, your co-workers started a campaign to keep big, clumsy bikes out of the office.  They’re unsightly, and you could bump into people with them, and who wants potential customers having to come in here and see bicycle parking?  (Before you laugh and say this is a ridiculous example that would never happen, I have to tell you this actually did happen to a friend of mine at my last job.)  So, of course we would never tell you that you can’t ride your bike to work; you just can’t bring it into the office.  Park it outside.  Where it might get stolen.  Or rained on.  Or vandalized.  You’ll probably need to buy an expensive new bike lock, if you can even find anything convenient to chain it to.  But, you know, definitely keep riding your bike to work.

This is exactly how I feel.  Sure, I can still use my e-cig by going outside.  Just like the bad old days when I was actually smoking.  I can interrupt my train of thought, go down three stories, hang around outside for a while, then come back, try to figure out where I left off, and eventually get back up to full productivity again.  I don’t have to wonder if that’s how it will work: I’ve been there.  I already know how it works.  So, sure, I could do that.  It’ll cost me time, effort, and mental capacity, which means it will cost my company money, but I can do that.  At least my co-workers won’t have to ... well, what?  They won’t have to breathe my second-hand smoke?  They’re already not doing that.  They won’t have to breathe my second-hand nicotine.  Nope, already not doing that either.  They ... won’t have to breathe my second-hand water vapor?  Ummm ... I got news for you, people: you’re breathing my second-hand water vapor, every day, whether you can see it or not, just like I have to breathe yours.  My boss, casting around for a rational reason, vaguely suggested that perhaps it was the smell that bothered people.  But, remember: I smoke menthols.  The smell of my “smoking” is a variation of mint.  So that one doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

I suppose the primary benefit to my co-workers (or more likely one particular co-worker) is the smug sense of satisfaction they’ll have that they successfully trod on someone’s freedom of expression.  Speaking as a fellow who’s gotten kicked out of a hell of a lot of places for being barefoot, I can tell you with some authority that you should not underestimate this.  I was once kicked out of a record store by a guy with about 15 earrings in one ear and blue hair, essentially for being non-conformist.  There are some people who enter the service industry to actually be helpful to people, but there are plenty who find a great comfort in being able to tell people what to do.  Makes ’em feel powerful.  Makes them feel like they control their world, and I’m guessing they have a desperate need to feel that.  And I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who have that issue and yet don’t go into retail.  Whatever will they do?  In my experience, they generally become middle managers for medium-to-large companies, where they can boss people around and feel really important.  So I sort of feel like I have a co-worker (or two) who’s missing their calling.  But, hey: there’s yet time.  This is a great start towards their lifelong dream.

Best of luck to ’em.

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