Wednesday, May 31, 2006

À la prochaine, James

James at the Café

Against Bill 112: Rejoinder

Originally posted: October 15, 2004.

So, is this blog well ventilated?

No, no it is not. This blog is dense with blue-grey smoke that curls up into the light in endless streams. It is smoky in the manner of strip clubs and speakeasies and political backrooms; you will leave reeking of smoke and it will linger in your hair all the next day. There are no government officials here and no children either. No one is producing anything and everyone will stay until dawn. It is a space that is regressing into the province of memory, a thing that is loved and gone; it is a refuge and a funeral at once.

And yes, this blog is still called The Smoking Section.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Against Bill 112: In Praise of Uselessness

Originally posted: May 7, 2005.

I am still digesting yesterday’s news. James and I met to commiserate last night, but mostly we steeped in helpless rage. What is to be done?

When the Quebec Superior court certified two class-action lawsuits against Canada’s tobacco companies in February, Judge Pierre Jasmin pronounced that cigarettes have no "useful purpose,” an assertion that forms the basis of his ruling. From the decision:

What informed individual, whether they be smokers or non-smokers, could argue that smoking cigarettes has any useful purpose? On the contrary, cigarettes are not only useless but are dangerous and create a health problem and, in many cases, they create problems such as emphysema, cancer and heart diseases.

Being an informed individual, I do not dispute the negative health effects of smoking. I do, however, question the judge’s definition of the term “use”. What, I am compelled to inquire, is useful?

Automobiles, presumably, which kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, which have directly contributed to the destruction of the earth’s ozone layer, and which are fuelled by a commodity that requires the rule of brutal dictatorships and endlessly recurring wars. These negative effects are commonly justified on the basis of automobiles’ usefulness, which is primarily economic and therefore taken to be self-evident.

Is this what Jasmin means by use? If so, what of other uses?

Are the hours of conversation I’ve had while smoking useful?

Are the moments of comfort that cigarettes provide to people who suffer useful?

Are the countless thousands of books that have been written while smoking useful?

Are the cigarettes my father smoked after a twelve-hour factory shift useful?

Are the songs we hear in smoky bars useful?

Is the camaraderie that exists between smokers useful?

Are the cigarettes shared by lovers useful?

Is time that is spent not working useful?

Is a life that is well lived useful?

Is pleasure useful?

If not, then let us defend uselessness with every ounce of our being, especially here in this city, Montreal, whose very essence is useless. Its bars teem with useless writers, artists, and musicians; its cafés buzz with useless conversations about useless philosophical theories; its streets are filled with useless demonstrations against useful government policies. Its topography is useless, to say nothing of its infrastructure.

We have come here, those of us who are exiles, and we stay, those of us who are not, precisely because Montreal is useless: because it is not Toronto or Vancouver or Los Angeles or New York. We are here to escape the tyranny of use, for a time or forever, and to feel what life is like in its absence.

Ours is truly a distinct society, for reasons that include but are immeasurably more complex than linguistic affiliation. Our history is a history of smoke: of jazz clubs and burlesque houses and political backrooms. It is European, not British; Catholic, not Protestant; radical, not liberal. Montreal is a calculated risk, the fine line between meaning and poverty, connection and conflict. It is, as it is often said, the smoking section of Canada, and that’s why it is different. And so much more fun.

Down the street from my apartment, there are two cafés: The Café, and the other café. The Café permits smoking, and it is therefore where smokers go to be useless. The other café, which is less than a block away, does not permit smoking, so that is where the non-smokers go. Being honest, I’m not entirely sure what transpires there, but I imagine that it is useful. In any case, both groups, the useless and the useful, have a café they can enjoy; neither envies nor encroaches upon the other. We peacefully coexist in the same small neighbourhood, and sometimes we even say hello as we pass each other in the street.

Is there anything wrong with this arrangement? Or must we all be useful by decree?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Against Bill 112: When a cigar isn’t just a cigar

As I have noted elsewhere, there is exactly one exception to Quebec’s upcoming smoking ban: cigar bars. Not shisha bars, not bingo halls, not homeless shelters, but cigar bars, in which the smoking of cigarettes will be expressly forbidden. Why cigars and not cigarettes? Presumably, the former are no safer—and certainly no sweeter-smelling—than the latter. Also, presumably, cigar bar employees are no less deserving of protection from environmental pollutants than other service industry workers. So what gives?

C’mon, anyone?

It has to be said, and I may as well be the one to say it: there is a class dimension to all of this that reeks worse than a cheap stogie. Why else would what is indisputably an elite pleasure be mysteriously exempted from the ban, when all others are considered fair game for elimination?

Studies show that, since smoking rates began to decline in the late 1960s, a disproportionate percentage of cigarette smokers belong to the working class or to the ranks of the poor. For better or for worse, smoking is what people of limited means do to socialize, to relieve stress, and to break up the workday. It is, in other words, a part of the culture that one inhabits when one is poor, a culture that the vast majority of doctors, health researchers, and government ministers know absolutely nothing about.

This is, I suspect, what the Scottish MP John Reid meant when, in his response to the Labour Party’s 2004 proposal to ban smoking in public housing projects, he derided the bill’s supporters as the “meddling” middle class. From his remarks:

I just do not think the worst problem on our sink estates by any means is smoking, but that is an obsession of the learned middle class. What enjoyment does a 21-year-old single mother of three living in a council sink estate get? The only enjoyment sometimes they have is to have a cigarette.

Reid, who was Britain’s Health Secretary at the time, sparked a national uproar with his statement, which was attacked as irresponsible, even dangerous. His response:

If we cannot even begin to discuss, question, and honestly explore the circumstantial and cultural factors which might have led to [health] inequalities without the sort of hysterical reaction we have seen in certain quarters in recent days, then it perhaps begins to explain why we have failed in the first place.

If nothing else, Reid knows of what he speaks. The son of a postman and a factory worker, Reid left school at age sixteen, returning several years later, via the Open University, to earn a doctoral degree in history. He is also a former smoker, who is said to have smoked sixty cigarettes a day before giving up the habit in 2003. As such, he understands that the nature of one’s relationship to risk depends enormously on which class culture you call home.

In the neighbourhood I grew up in, smoking was commonplace, but so too were workplace accidents and other environmental hazards. My father lost his hearing to the din of a steel factory, for which he receives “workman’s” compensation. My mother lost two of her fingers to an industrial lathe, for which she received no compensation. My friend Joey’s father, an auto mechanic, had his chest crushed by a faulty car jack. My friend Ilir’s father was almost electrocuted on a construction site. It was awful, but it's how things were.

I remember well the gnawing childhood fear that my father might be killed at work, and the sense of relief I felt when he arrived safely home. I also remember that the first thing he would do when he came in the door was to light a cigarette and open a bottle of beer. This is what relaxed him, after a twelve-hour shift of heat and noise and dirt, and, three years into his retirement, it still does.

In a few days time, my father and I will be forbidden to smoke a cigarette in a public establishment anywhere in the province of Quebec, while the considerably wealthier patrons of Quebec’s cigar bars will have their right to smoke enshrined in law. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the contradiction.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Against Bill 112: Time out

So this is what it's come to. (Sighs.)

Since I began this series, I have learned that smokers are criminals, psychologically deviant, and as ideologically suspect as creationist Christians. Which I suppose means me, James, Arit, Atomic, Setare, Ellen, Bob, D., my dad, and several dozen other people I know.

At least I'm in good company.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Against Bill 112: A Theory of Relativity

While writing a post about a certain gift I recently received, I had occasion to learn a little bit about Malawi. I am embarrassed to admit that, prior to this point, I knew virtually nothing about the country other than that it was located somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and that I probably couldn't have found it on an unmarked map without outside assistance.

After undertaking a smidgen of research, I discovered that Malawi sits just to the north of Mozambique, and that it has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the world’s ten poorest countries. By way of illustration, the average annual income of a Malawian is less than $100 US, while the country’s per capita GDP is $596, the world’s lowest. The statistic that really knocked me on my ass, though, was Malawi’s average life expectancy rate, which presently stands at 41.7 years. Worse, the rate has fallen since 1981, when the World Bank and the IMF began implementing market reforms. Oops.

By contrast, Canadians have, on average, a life expectancy rate of 80.2 years, a figure that has climbed steadily since the late nineteenth century, irrespective of our smoking habits. Although we lag slightly behind Japan, Hong Kong, and several Scandinavian countries, we remain firmly entrenched in the top five percent of global longevity rates, ranking above both Britain and the United States. Even so, we are hungry for more. I mean, why settle for eighty years of life when we could have eighty-five, or ninety, or ninety-three? Surely, if we just ate better, smoked less, and exercised regularly, we could make it to a hundred? Couldn’t we?

This begs the question: what is the maximum possible life expectancy of a human being? As a recent CNN health special suggested, there is, at least in theory, no reason why we ever have to die. With the adoption of a rigourously healthy lifestyle, combined with the right pharmaceutical advances, immortality need not be a condition reserved for the particularly pious, but one that we can all enjoy right here, right now.

As a layperson, I have no way of knowing if CNN's claim is true or not, but what I do know is this: the majority of the world’s population can expect to live for considerably fewer years than we do. I also know that the citizens of the ten poorest countries will not, on average, make it to “middle” age, while those of Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland will be lucky to see their mid-thirties.

Taking Malawi as our case study, there are a number of reasons for this awful fact. The first is poverty, which is the single most important factor in determining longevity rates. The second is the African HIV epidemic, which has cut a wide and impossibly cruel swath through a whole generation. The third is the lack of availability of vaccinations and basic health care, which is not entirely unrelated to the first. Add to this a primarily agricultural economy that is prone to drought, intermittent famines, and the crushing weight of debt to First World nations, and you have a country in which a nineteen-year-old has already lived out half of her natural life.

Thinking about it, I can’t help but wonder what the average Malawian thinks about our earnest efforts to become centenarians. Do they see us as greedy, gorging on our own health much as we do the world’s food, natural resources, and wealth? Do they question why we think we are owed our extended lifespans, and why we seem to think they are not? Do they ask themselves, as I sometimes do, why people who are so comfortable, so privileged, so insulated from the ravages of life as much of the world knows it, are still so desperately afraid of death?

I also wonder what would happen if we directed one ounce of the political will we invest in smoking bans, anti-obesity campaigns, and other First World obsessions towards addressing the health inequities that affect millions, if not billions, of our fellow global citizens? What might we achieve? The eradication of HIV, which has orphaned over 700,000 Malawian children to date? An end to malaria, a treatable disease that kills more than a million people every year, the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa? The prevention of obstetric fistulas, which cripple or kill millions of African women and their children?

Um, okay, we know about HIV and malaria, Vila, but what’s a fistula? I’ll let an accredited medical professional explain:

Dr. Waaldijk remembers one patient well. She managed to push out only her baby's head before collapsing from exhaustion in her hut, he said. Her brother carried her, balanced on a donkey, to a road, where a bus driver demanded 10 times the usual fare to take her to a hospital. She half-stood, half-sat for the trip, her dead baby's head between her legs, her urethra ripped open. "This is what is happening," the doctor said. "Nobody will believe it."

I nearly vomited when I read the New York Times article Dr. Waaldijk was interviewed for, and I confess that I still have difficulty imagining what it is like to live a life in which the experiences he describes are not only normal, but inescapable. I do understand, however, on the same gut level, that it is one of the reasons that people in other parts of the world hate our fucking First World guts, my own very much included.

I suppose that I am being heavy-handed, but I don’t know how else to write about the chasm that exists between our concern with our own health and that of the rest of the world’s. It ought to haunt us, just as Dr. Waaldijk’s memory of his young patient does, if for no other reason than that in being haunted, we at least acknowledge that the chasm is there. And then maybe, just maybe, we will get our priorities straight.

Oh, and quite incidentally, the most common crop grown by Malawi’s impoverished farmers? Tobacco.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Against Bill 112: Death and Taxes

It all starts with tax cuts. No, really, it does.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher unleashed the age of neoliberalism, which revolutionized the way we think about the role of government. Essentially, the question they posed was this: instead of taxing citizens to enable the government to provide them with the services they need, why not reduce their taxes and allow them to pay for services themselves? The idea eventually spread to Canada, with all three governments slashing, to varying degrees, personal and corporate tax rates to almost unanimous applause. After all, who doesn’t like a tax cut?

The problem is, the ideology of tax cuts doesn’t account for contingencies like wars, natural disasters, and large-scale demographic shifts, the kinds of things that require a coordinated response from entities larger than the individual. This can lead to problems. For example, the current American president’s refusal to roll back tax cuts while his country fights no less than two wars has led directly to the highest deficit in U.S. history. Similarly, Hurricane Katrina exposed the decades-long neglect of federal emergency management agencies, which could barely manage to stage a decent photo-op as hundreds of American citizens drowned.

But what does this have to do with smoking, Vila?

For years, experts have warned that when the swollen ranks of baby boomers reached retirement age, they would create an unprecedented burden on the health care system. In the United States, which does not have universal health care, the strain is being felt by private and government-sponsored insurance programs, which are doing everything they can to reduce costs. In Canada, the pressure is borne by the public health care system, which, having been starved for funds for more than a decade, is now in noticeable decline. As the demand for health services increases, the ability of the system to deal with the influx of aging Canadians is being stretched to the breaking point. Without question, something needs to be done.

Pre-Reagan, the logical solution would have been to raise taxes to pay for the rising cost of health care, just as pre-Bush, taxes were understood to be one of the sacrifices a nation must make when it goes to war. Today, by contrast, the ideology of tax cuts is so deeply entrenched that no politician in their right mind would risk suggesting even a small increase. Therefore, they are forced to look elsewhere for alternatives.

In the case of health care, the solution that presented itself was to once again shift the fiscal burden from government to the individual, by way of the doctrine of prevention. From this perspective, it isn’t the government’s responsibility to look after the health of its citizens—it’s the individual citizen’s responsibility to look after themselves. In other words, since government can no longer afford to take care of us when we’re sick, the onus is on us not to get sick in the first place. And if we do, it must be our own damn fault.

Of course, prevention isn’t in and of itself a bad idea, up to a point. That point being reached when the imperative to prevent disease brings with it the social denormalization of those considered to be unhealthy. Smokers, of course, have been the primary target of denormalization campaigns for more than twenty years. However, as this article clearly shows, the next targets are the overweight and the obese, whose afflictions, like that of smokers, are thought best treated “like a communicable disease.”

Economics aside, there is something suspiciously moralistic about the doctrine of prevention, as well as something deeply intolerant about the way it is applied to human beings. It assumes, as statisticians often do, that an ideal individual exists, one who embodies a norm of perfect healthfulness from which the rest of us deviate. As (Dr.) David Romano recently reminded me, government studies that purport to show the increased health costs of smoking do so by assuming that a non-smoker uses $0 of health care—i.e., that non-smokers never have cause to visit a doctor, to stay in hospital, or, presumably, to ever die.

This is preposterous. Yes, smokers have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. But smoking is one of several thousand possible causes of illness, quite a few of which can be linked to behavioural choices. For example, the second most common form of cancer among women (after breast cancer) is cervical cancer, which in the majority of cases is caused by infection with the Human Papilloma Virus, a sexually transmitted disease. Should we infer, then, that sex is the second greatest health threat to women, and therefore to be avoided at all costs? I certainly hope not.

Behaviour aside, a certain propensity for unhealthfulness is, unfortunately, part of the biological fact of being alive. My brother has never smoked a day in his life, but his health, which is otherwise excellent, has been profoundly compromised by an inherited gene that causes schizophrenia. There is nothing he could have done to prevent his condition (except, perhaps, to take up smoking), and his long-term prognosis is poor at best. In fact, studies indicate that, even as a habitual smoker, I will probably outlive him. Is this fair? No. But it’s the way life is.

In any event, the health care system is no better equipped to take care of my brother than it is to take care of me, and this fact exposes the lie that is at the heart of the doctrine of prevention. If I have to wait three months to see a doctor, or cannot get the surgery I need, then some of you will say that I deserve what I get because I choose to smoke. But what will you say to my brother when the voices in his head drive him to seek medical help, but when, because of reductions in health spending that are the consequence of tax cuts, there is no bed for him at the hospital, no outpatient care to give him, and no social worker to make sure he doesn’t fall through the cracks of our broken system? Does he somehow deserve it too? More to the point, do you?

Friday, May 19, 2006

But first, these commercial messages

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Against Bill 112: An Introduction

Despite its title, The Smoking Section was never meant to be a blog about smoking. In fact, I have often refrained from writing about the topic for fear of being perceived as a single-issue writer, or, worse, one with an agenda. I’m not, and with luck, I never will be.

However, with a total smoking ban coming into force in just two weeks, in the city I fell in love with in large part because of its notorious joie de vivre, I feel compelled, almost duty-bound, to address the issue. Hell, what do I have to lose?

In the days to come, I will make a number of arguments against Bill 112 and similar legislation that has been implemented elsewhere. These are not intended to be pro-smoking arguments, or even ones that endeavour to convince supporters who feel strongly about the ban. They are simply an attempt to give voice to ideas that have been lost in the increasingly acrimonious debate about smoking.

In another sense, they are also a response to my friend Wade, who asked me recently—and, I believe, sincerely—why I am against the ban. I should mention that Wade is a vegan who chooses not to smoke, who does not drink alcohol or caffeine, and who, I am reasonably certain, avoids drugs as well. Really, our lifestyles couldn’t be more different, but we still like each other a lot and genuinely want to understand each other. This is the spirit that informs what I will write here, and, I hope, what you will write here as well.

By Statistics Canada’s estimate, 24.9 per cent of Quebeckers are daily, or habitual smokers, a figure that does not include the presumably larger number of non-daily, or “social” smokers. This means that there are at least 828,301 smokers in the Montreal Metropolitan area, every one of whom’s relationship to public space will be affected by the ban. Try to remember this as you read on.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

On the Metroblog; or, Uberfrau has the floor

A comment on yesterday's Metroblogging post from the always incisive Uberfrau:

Smoking bans are always facist. Why be reasonable about things, when really, what you want is for other people to see the world as you do? Next you're going to say that people shouldn't smoke outside the doors of the bar, because you have to walk through it to get in. Then you're going to start complaining about the noise, and people loitering on the street. Then it's going to be illegal to stand and smoke outside, so forget the terrace, you have a right to sit out there too, without being irritated. For you it's not even a health issue, you are so intolerant that you cannot differentiate between what might be a nuisance to you and what constitutes an actual health risk. And really, if you were really all that health conscious, you probably wouldn't be going to a bar in the first place.

But then again, who can argue with you anyway, when really, you're so concerned about your community, and everyone else, because you care so much, and are so respectful of other people and living creatures, and may even toss the homeless change every once in a while. But then, you won't want to argue about it, or compromise, because you know you are right.You'll smirk and say, "I don't know why you're being so mean about this, why don't we just agree to disagree?" Yet, still feel as though you have won. In fact, why does anyone smoke in the first place? Why don't we just make it illegal? And after this, what about all of those fat people, why do they eat so much? Aren't they, just like the smokers, costing the public health system way too much?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Close examination

Do sleeping bodies
when adjacent
but not contiguous
become so?

Can fear incrementally
the configuration of bones
such that
the whole skeleton
changes shape?

Is it possible
to wipe a slate clean?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Changes Five

This one's hard...

James is moving back to B.C.

He leaves May 30th.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Changes Four

Arit graduated from photography school today.

I'm so proud of her

I could scream.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Changes Three

I went on a date this weekend.

At least...

I think that's what they're called.

Changes Two

The smoking ban looms.


the café won’t be The Café anymore.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Changes One

My ex is getting married.

I never wanted to get married.

He said he didn’t either.

Friday, May 05, 2006

In flux

Sometimes, nothing much happens. Other times, change comes on like a Mack truck

This is one of those other times.

Just go with the flow, Vila...

I’ve been cautious in recent weeks, writing but not posting. It’s all tangled up in knots, and I can’t decide which thread to untangle first.

Maybe if you talk some more politics, no one will notice...

Disclaimer: it might just be loose threads for a while.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Add it up

From the 2006 Federal Budget:

Personal Tax Measures

  • The lowest personal income tax rate, which applies to all income earned up to a threshold of about $36,400, will rise to 15.5 per cent effective July 1.

Business Tax Measures

  • The general corporate tax rate will be cut to 19 per cent from 21 per cent by 2010.
  • The corporate surtax for all businesses will be dropped by Jan. 1, 2008.
  • The federal capital tax is eliminated, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2006.
That's fair, isn't it?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Happy May Day!

In celebration of International Workers Day, this excellent NPR feature on the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which was, incidentally, inspired by the Canadian labour movement.

Also, an interesting Village Voice piece on today’s Great American Boycott, a remarkable grassroots response to the anti-immigration policies currently being considered by the US Congress. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on CNN today.