Sunday, January 18, 2015


“Though I would just as soon get along without it, an humbling awareness of the complexity of moral issues is said to be a good thing. If such an awareness is, in fact good---and if I in fact have it—I have tobacco to thank for it. To many people nowadays, there is nothing complex about the moral issue of tobacco. They are simply against it. They will sit in their large automobiles, spewing a miasma of toxic gas into the atmosphere, and they will thank you for not smoking a cigarette. They will sit in a smoke-free bar, drinking stingers and other toxic beverages, and wonder how smokers can have so little respect for their bodies. They will complacently stand in the presence of a coal-fired power plant or nuclear power plant or a bomb factory or a leaking chemical plant, and they will wonder how a tobacco farmer can have so little regard for public health. Well, as always, it matters whose ox is being gored.”

Wendell Berry in the essay The Problem of Tobacco.

Berry also used the coal fired power plant in another context. Say a company wants to build a plant in Indiana that happens to be near the Kentucky border. The folks in Indiana get to weigh in on the plant. Even though they live on the other side of the state and given prevailing winds may never see much of the pollution from the plant. However, the folks who live just across the border, who do get hit with the pollution don’t have a say in whether the plant gets built or not.

Back to tobacco. All of Berry’s examples can damage the environment. However dealing with his other examples mean that society as a whole has to deal with the problems, even change how they live their lives. Smoking however can be portrayed as individual weakness. Everything would be cool if those weak, addicted people would just get their act together. In the meantime all the other threats to health and the environment keep ticking like time bombs and any suggestion that structural changes need to be made are met with the “you are trampling on my personal freedoms’ mantra. Usually very loudly and with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

1 comment:

Lisa :-] said...

I realized some time ago that the crusade against smoking was a weak front erected to make people believe that the government really is concerned about public health and has the will and means to do something about it. The tobacco industry ended up being the sacrificial lamb, offered up by Corporate America to the God of Consumer Protection. And, come to think of it, the tobacco industry has done anything but go under. People STILL smoke, even though you can't really do it in public anywhere anymore. Looks like Corporate America has its cake and is eating it, too. Surprise.