Smoking Out the Poor

Being poor is a bummer.  Even in America.

It’s no surprise that depression ravages our low-income communities at exceedingly high rates.  Performing menial tasks, day after day, to receive a salary barely sufficient to afford necessities, is unenviable, and alas, all too common a lifestyle for poor folks.  An enforced lifestyle, I should add, beneath the dignity of a country that purports to be free.  As the anti-apartheid leader Harry Schwarz aptly noted, “Freedom is incomplete if it is exercised in poverty.”

It’s certainly not the case that working-class folks are ruder than the rich.  It is instead that, by virtue of their increased stress, many low-income workers exude a palpable despondency.  For proof, please enter a McDonald’s, wherein the dreariness of minimum wage employees elicits widespread complaints and official reprimands from supervisors.  I myself experience working-class discontent as a grocery store cashier when antsy poor folks pass through my line with food stamps in one hand and a pack of Marlboros in the other.

Yes, smoking atop poverty.  It’s like the opposite of, hmmm— levity atop joy.

That low socioeconomic status is the single biggest predictor of smoking propensity is no accident.  Tobacco companies, aware that people cope with stress and “fit in” by smoking, make entire communities tobacco-dependent by getting some downtrodden people to pick up the habit and share it with their friends.  And where better to find stressed out people than in poor neighborhoods?  Not only are tobacco advertisements in low-income areas bigger, the number of targeted tobacco ads, per person, in disproportionately working-class black neighborhoods is 2.6 times larger than the number per person in richer white neighborhoods.  Alas, big tobacco’s efforts to spread smoking culture to poor communities have succeeded: roughly 29% of people below the poverty level smoke, compared to only 17.9% of everyone else.

The malevolence of tobacco companies is almost unfathomable; that they flock to people in destitute areas, precisely because they are poor, in order to hook them on nicotine is exploitation defined.  Giving depressed people an “escape” through expensive, carcinogenic rat poison is neither altruistic nor socially beneficial, no matter how slyly one tries to rebrand it.  Real altruism would involve uplifting people from poverty, something in which tobacco executives have no interest whatsoever.

And yet, to point the finger solely at Phillip Morris is not only futile, but also too gentle on the social forces allowing this to happen.  Until it ceases to exist, the tobacco industry will continue extracting from the poor every penny it can, regardless of how depraved the public perceives such a process to be.  Alleviating tobacco’s burden on the working-class will thus require a large-scale societal investment in healthy living, one that condemns poverty itself as a threat to citizens’ mental and physical health.

If we hope to maintain sanity in our society, we must stop thinking of the working-class as a purely economic entity, an aggregate only valuable as a purveyor of production.  It is indefensible to constrain non-unionized employees to mind-numbing work for more than 40 hours a week, even when folks are getting paid overtime.  Dull work is, well, just that—dull, and still, the working-class today depends on it for sustenance.

So, you’re darn right they smoke, and otherwise engage in psychological and physiological alteration when they’re off the clock.  A cigarette is a thirty-second escape from a seeming eternity of drudgery.  Of course, this particular refuge itself causes stress by impoverishing and weakening the poor even further, which in turn aggravates the smoking poor and makes them want to smoke even more.  There are also some happy, working-class smokers I know, but they’re jolly in spite of their addiction, not because of it.  Even to them, smoking is a false, however alluring idol, to which they acquire a tumultuous addiction only satiated by further indulgence in it.  A cruel cycle, if I’ve ever seen one.

At the register, I checked out one patron on food stamps who coughed when she spoke.  Poor enough to receive SNAP, she was clearly too short on cash to comfortably afford cigarettes, but her addiction got the better of her.  If she, like the average SNAP recipient, receives $1.50 per meal, her food is probably lacking either in portion or nutrition, or both, thus exacerbating the unhealthiness of her smoking habit.  Furthermore, if she lives in one of the 76% of SNAP households with a senior citizen, child, or person with a disability, her dearth of food options combined with her smoking habit puts her already-vulnerable cohabitants at risk of malnourishment and second-hand smoke.  Mind you, even if you brashly insist that this sort of customer “deserves her unhealthiness,” you cannot say the same of her impoverished codependents, nor of the 57.5% of service industry workers and 52.2% of blue-collar employees exposed to second-hand smoke because of their employment in non-smoke-free communities.

Simply put, poverty’s unhealthy, which is why the rich outlive the poor and fare better medically when they’re alive.  We can justifiably lambast tobacco companies for targeting the poor, but only if we’re willing to accept responsibility as a society for breeding conditions conducive to tobacco’s successful encroachment upon impoverished neighborhoods.  We must increase funding for cessation programs serving the poor, but until we also address structural economic injustices, perpetuated by politicians today cutting food stamps, smashing unions, and removing Medicaid supports for working-class people (including smokers trying to quit), we cannot claim any genuine inroads against big tobacco, for eradicating smoking culture requires us to eradicate the stress and despair that breed it.

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Posted in Humanism
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