Riding the bus to campus last week, I noticed with idle curiosity as a pair of junior high school girls got on and took two empty seats nearby. One of them soon reached over and tapped me on the hand. (It turned out she thought I was one of her teachers.) What struck me about her was her innocent-looking, almost angelic face, and its sharp contrast with her short brown hair, baggy pants, and skateboard.
I had filed the girl away as an interesting example of today's youth when I noticed her tap the hand of the college student sitting near her on the other side. She leaned over and whispered something to the young woman, who smiled and took a cigarette from her purse. The kid's eyes shone as she took it, breathing, "Thanks!" She looked like a child on Christmas morning; I don't think she would have looked happier if Santa Claus had appeared and given her a Sega Saturn with every game on the market.
Although the irony was magnificent, the reality was sickening. Here was this child Ÿ not a day over 14 Ÿ positively star-struck at the thought of lighting up a coffin nail and asphalt-surfacing her lungs. Not for the first time, I wondered why the devil people do this. Did she need to calm her nerves? Nicotine can have that effect. Of course, once you become dependent on the stuff, you'd better pray it does, since your nerves will be shot otherwise.
Did she like the taste of smoke in her mouth, eating away at her mucus membranes? I suppose it's possible in theory. After all, I can't stand cantaloupe, but some people like it. Or she could have acquired the taste. But then, one could probably acquire a taste for motor oil, too, which returns to the question of why.
Why would she smoke a cigarette in the first place? It defies all sense to set something on fire and then inhale the smoke. Smoke makes us cough. It leaves the throat raw and scratchy. It makes the eyes water. If thick enough, it can kill us. Obviously our bodies are trying to tell us something, and this is only the short-term picture.
It is well known that smoking causes many forms of cancer and a host of other ailments. Insurance companies charge smokers extra because they know the smokers are likely to take an early trip to the big tobacco field in the sky, expending a lot of money (and suffering) on the way. Of course, any smoker will tell you it's awfully hard to quit, and perhaps the kid on the bus didn't know the risks. But why start?
It could have been a form of rebellion, or peer pressure. It might have been caused by deep-seated self-destructive tendencies. But I think the most likely trouble was in the examples the girl saw around her. Glossy ads promote smokers as happy, healthy, sophisticated bon vivants, linking tobacco to charisma and success. Her own parents may smoke, which would make it useless for them to tell her not to. And, finally, there sat a successful collegiate adult with a pack of the things in her purse.
So what's to do? I don't think banning cigarettes is the answer. Unlike pot, hash, speed, coke, and other forms of dope, nicotine is no more mind-altering than caffeine, and if an adult wants to use it to wreck his own life, that's his business. We should keep educating people about the risks. We should try to instill sound moral and logical judgment in kids to stop smoking before it starts. We should end all tobacco subsidies tomorrow (along with every other form of corporate welfare). We should decide if it's fair to have Medicare or Medicaid pay for tobacco-related disease.
Lastly, we should prosecute the hell out of anyone giving cigarettes to minors, with hard time, felony charges, the works. There is no excuse for committing such a destructive act, knowing full well the addictive danger of tobacco. To smoke your own cigarette is stupid and irresponsible (think of the example you're setting), but to give one to a kid is criminal.
As the girl was leaving the bus, I caught her arm lightly and said, "You shouldn't smoke, kid; it's bad for you." She mumbled that she knew it and was gone. I hope she takes the advice. As for the young woman who so kindly gave her the cancer stick: if you read this, think about what you've done, and know that you ought to be deeply ashamed.
John Keisling neither drinks nor smokes; he just has a S-S-S-SMOKIN'! time. He is a math Ph. D. candidate whose column appears Wednesdays.
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