January 20-26 is National Non-Smoking Week, an annual public health education effort in Canada, established by the Canadian Council for Tobacco Control. The goal of this is to educate people about the dangers of smoking, to help people quit smoking, and generally to attain a smoke-free society across Canada. This includes the stated aim of “de-normalizing” the tobacco industry (i.e., to turn public discourse about all things tobacco so that they are seen, by default, to be negative) and to advance one’s right to breath air without cigarette smoke in it (i.e., sequester smokers into designated areas where they can’t bother anybody with their smoking).
Now, I don’t know of too many folks (except those who work for tobacco companies) who are willing to argue that cigarettes don’t pose a pretty substantial health risk. But I do know a few civil libertarians who would grind under the notion of demonizing tobacco just to get people to stop using it, as well as creating little internment camps for people who want to smoke in public. I get where they are coming from. But I don’t care.
In the United States today, when the health risks of smoking are clear to all, when smoking itself is listed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as the number one form of preventable deaths each year, one in five Americans are still willing to smoke. One in five! Coincidentally, those CDC stats also note that one in five deaths in the U.S. each year—about 443,000, total—occur from smoking. That is a handy coincidence, if ever I saw one.
In 1965, smoking rates were close to 45 percent, and have gone downhill steadily since then for adults, down to about 20 percent today. We have to thank for this awareness campaigns and a greater aversion to giving oneself heart disease and cancer than to enjoy a puff. For teenagers, the CDC began keeping figures around 1992, and there was a weird spike in teenage smoking, up to about 35 percent by 1998, but that, too, has fallen to about 20 percent in the years following. Still, the rate is not yet zero, which it really ought to be for any number of reasons. Reducing the overall health care cost burden is just one of the more obvious ones.