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Michael Bettencourt

Our Tolerated Addicts


February 2015

I work a coin's toss away from Wall Street in New York City.  Every day, as I trundle to work, I see the addicts huddled against the sides of buildings or strung out in the little park across from my entrance or even boldly walking down the street taking their hits.


I describe, of course, tobacco smokers, who pretty much get a pass from our otherwise censorious attitude toward drug-users and their addictions. 


Smokers may feel that they are second-class citizens, evicted from buildings, kicked to the curbs, and over-taxed, but their addiction is still given a lot of social support.  First of all, they are not harassed by the police for "quality of life" infractions, nor driven deeper into the shadows to get their fix by cops on the prowl for "broken windows," nor arrested by the hundreds of thousands for possession and use and have their lives marred by a record.


Second, they can litter at will.  Smokers can toss butts into the street and never get ticketed for littering or reprimanded for being slobs.  Instead, the city will send along its street sweepers and clean up after them.  This is not an inconsequential thing.  Here is a citation from the May 2014 Harper's Index: "Percentage of all litter on U.S. roadways accounted for by cigarette butts: 36."


In a single state – Arizona – cigarette trash accounts for 38% of the 803 tons of crap workers winnow from the highways, or a little over 305 tons (610,000 pounds).  Add to that the similar garbage stats from 49 other states and other U.S. principalities, and it's clear that smokers have a whole class of people dedicated to cleaning up after them without charging them a penny for their services.


Well, there are cigarette taxes, a smoker might say, and the high cost of cigarettes themselves.  (According to the American Lung Association, the average cost of a pack is $5.51, though here in New York City it's $14.50 - like everything in this city, a high price for low satisfaction).  But these are self-inflicted charges: stop smoking and stop paying.


In fact, just as smokers are subsidized for their trash habits, their health care (if you want to call it that) is also subsidized.  Again, according to the American Lung Association, the United States spends over $300 billion a year in direct health care, lost workplace productivity, and premature deaths related to smoking.  In other words, smokers may spend $14.50 in New York for that pack, but the society pays $18.05 to take care of them as they destroy, and when they've destroyed, their bodies.


Are smokers bad people?  I don't know if "bad" is the right word, but they are clearly selfish, parasitic, weak-willed, and irresponsible.  They are, to some degree, victims of a culture premised on addiction, but they have also made a choice to addict themselves and are thus answerable for all the damage and adulteration they cause. 


In this country, of course, we pride ourselves on holding onto destructive habits as a sign of our individualism and love of liberty (e.g., guns) and seem willing to go on paying a high subsidy (in money and bodies) to maintain our myths.  But at least as regards smoking, this is a bane that can be eliminated if people exercise what are considered the definitive parts of the American character: self-reliance, freeing oneself from a slave-master, the power to captain of one's own fate, the desire to be honest and simple. 


Instead of barking about second-classism, elitism, and the "war on smokers" (as one blog put it), smokers should back away from the public trough, resolve to do better and then do better, take advantage of the multiple services out there to help them stop, and get the monkey off their backs.  This will save their bodies, save their souls, save a lot of money, and save me the annoyance of having to get past the smoke-fog at the entrance of every building in order to get inside the building and get some fresh air.

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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©2015 Michael Bettencourt
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February 2015


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