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23.1.04

A Proposal (Quasi-Serious)

On the drive home Wednesday, I enjoyed a brief commentary about the glory days of smoking (The Odor of a Bygone World, January 21) on NPR. According to the blurb from their Web site:

Robert Siegel, a former smoker, talks about the sensations and memories provoked by the scent of stale cigarette smoke. He says, "It was the smell of America in the 20th century, a century that has passed and has largely taken its odor with it to oblivion." Ralph Schoenstein talks about his father's habit and the glamour of New York City when cigarettes were everywhere [this piece is an adaptation of a column originally published in the New York Daily News as It may be bad for you, but smoking had a glamour on December 28]. Mary Jo Pehl is reminded of her wild college roommate. The entertainer Teller, of Penn and Teller, remembers how his dad's cigarette smoke once cured his car sickness. Daniel Pinkwater heads back to a Chicago dive, and Peter Freundlich remembers what cigarettes symbolized when he was young: life without consequences.
Those words about "stale cigarette smoke" might make you think that this was a negative assessment of the phenomenon of smoking, but the essays in this segment were more bittersweet nostalgia than the hysterical condemnation that reigns now. The online piece has two galleries of images, too, photographs related to the reminiscences narrated in the audio, as well as beautiful images of famous smokers from movies, ads, and photographs (wherever possible, of course, listing the year in which the subject died of lung cancer).

A WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR:
Kids, ignore what I am about to say, and stay away from cigarettes.

It is no secret that the glamourous image of smoking was largely created and manipulated by tobacco companies. (In case you think that the age of those sorts of advertising tactics is past, check out the strategies that one tobacco company was using just last year, in Tobacco firm offers celebs cigarettes for life, from August 7, 2003.) I understand this as an abstract concept; however, I have a hard time remembering it when looking at someone like Kate Moss smoking (or, in another era, Audrey Hepburn): are these images sexy and alluring because the women are smoking or are these women just sexy and alluring with or without a cigarette?

Eventually, I will be deported from the United States for saying this, but smoking is actually an intensely pleasureful activity. Yes, the well-known francophilia here at Ionarts extends to the guilty pleasure of the occasional cigarette. As with so many enjoyments in life, it is bad enough for you that it will eventually kill you. However, why are we focusing our efforts—as a society upset, quite justifiably, with the dangers of smoking—on a campaign to remove cigarettes from the ever shortening list of acceptable diversions available to us? We should instead, and here I am being at least somewhat serious, be spending money on research to make cigarettes noncarcinogenic. If we can avoid it at all, why would we give up the pleasure of having a smoke while strolling in the park? If you really don't think that sounds like fun, take a look at John Singer Sargent's painting Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight (1879, from The Minneapolis Institute of Arts), shown below.
John Singer Sargent, Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight, 1879, from The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

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