As a doctor, I’m well aware of the negative health effects of smoking. Studies show a life time of smoking subtracts an average of ten years from your life expectancy. I’m also aware of the considerable health costs of treating smoking-related illnesses, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease and stroke. Other studies suggest that non-smokers actually generate higher health care costs because they live ten years longer. This research receives limited publicity. The Center for Disease Control prudently chooses not to promote the cost savings associated with premature death.
Owing to a chronic sinus condition, I’m also painfully aware of the effects of second hand smoke. Prior to the public ban on smoking, I had no choice but to avoid public areas (restaurants, bars, theaters and even airplanes) where smoking was likely to occur.
The Stigmatization of Smokers
However, as an organizer and civil libertarian, I’m also extremely wary the increasing stigmatization of smokers – especially when I read that employers are using “smoker status” as a justification for not hiring people. In this regard, I think the right wing may be justified in labeling liberals who lobby for smoking bans as “green fascists.” In an era were corporate and government interests are looking for every possible opportunity to pit working Americans against one another, it’s counterproductive to be hypercritical of lifestyle choices.
Most progressives know better than to stigmatize the unemployed and homeless. Yet many of us don’t give a second thought about villainizing smokers, alcoholics, fat people – and, might I add, gun owners. All four are popular targets right now. I blame this on liberals’ willingness to embrace what is essentially conservative ideology – the need to take “personal responsibility” for our lives.
The Cult of Personal Responsibility
Taking “personal responsibility” simply ain’t going to cut it right now. Not for millions of unemployed Americans, nor the million plus homeless, nor for thousands of families facing imminent foreclosure and/or eviction. And singling out designated groups for bad lifestyle choices distracts us from the real problem in the US – a concerted attack by Wall Street and our corporate-controlled President and Congress on working people.
Decades of epidemiological research (see prior blog on Dr Stephen Bezruchka) show that lifestyle choices account for only 10% of the causation of illness. If we’re really serious about improving Americans’ abysmal health status (near the bottom for industrial countries), it’s time to address the real cause of poor health. Study after study shows a direct link between their extreme income disparity and Americans’ high rate of both acute and chronic illness.
It’s time to focus on the real problem – the corporate deregulation and tax cuts responsible for extreme income equality in the US. Instead of scapegoating smokers and fat people.