Our world must have reeked of tobacco smoke: clothes, curtains, walls, upholstery, the air we breathed (a smoker today is instantly recognizable by the smell of his clothes, and a secondhand book formerly owned by a smoker is likewise recognizable). Smokers, in my experience, are reluctant to understand just how unpleasant or disturbing nonsmokers find their habit, though they claim, perhaps not without some justification, that conviviality has declined with the decline in smoking. Certainly, there are no more smoke-filled rooms.
My neighbor called out to me as I started walking back to the house after rolling the trash out for the next morning’s pickup. “Come on in where it’s warm,” he said as I walked up his steps. He wanted to talk to me about a potential job. Twenty minutes later, when I got home, my clothes didn’t pass the sniff test. Into the wash they went. He hadn’t even been smoking while I was there. The air in his living room was just permeated with the smog of thousands of previously-smoked cigarettes.
I was born a smoker, my mom having started several years earlier. My secondhand habit continued until I was ten, when she quit after receiving a health scare. She had blood in her urine, and after running a series of tests, her doctor came back into the room, looked at his clipboard, glanced up at her, and shook his head slowly. In that moment, she was sure he was going to tell her she had cancer, and she quickly prayed to the God she’d stopped officially worshiping, promising Him that she’d quit if only He let her live. As it happened, the doctor’s head-shake was one of puzzlement, because the tests were all clear. It eventually turned out that she’d been taking several aspirin per day for years to deal with the headaches that smoking caused her, which explained the blood from her stomach lining. Nevertheless, she did indeed quit cold turkey that day (reinforcing the fact that “addiction” is hardly the neurochemical determinism it’s typically made out to be). After that, she would perform her disgust when encountering smokers in public, conspicuously fanning the air and making exasperated noises of disapproval, thus replacing the buzz of nicotine with the rush of moral superiority.
Smoking has long since become an issue about many things besides itself. Conquerors often romanticize the conquered, and smoking has to some extent been repurposed as a defiant middle finger raised against the health-conscious liberal elite and its prissy quest for endless self-improvement. Few people might want to champion smoking as a practice, but they still see it as a useful tool of cultural criticism. Smoking has become something of a countercultural symbol of “real working folks” authenticity and nostalgia for a bygone ritual whereby people valued camaraderie more than the purity of their own lungs. Liberalism’s emphasis on individual autonomy logically extends to our personal airspace, which we defend as zealously as any nation-state against hostile invaders. Why should I have to suffer the costs of your choices? The logic is sound as far as it goes, but where it goes is to a world of social atomization, where obligations are contractual and easily enough dissolved when inconvenient. And as my mom could tell you, few things are as satisfying as being judgmental or cruel toward those who can be confidently said to have “deserved” their treatment. I shouldn’t have to wash the stale reek of cheap tobacco out of my clothes, or suffer an irritated throat for a couple hours, but sometimes it’s just more important to be neighborly than to be right.