Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Where There Was Smoke...

In the 1980s, C. Everett Koop became a cultural icon.  For those not blessed with sufficient age, Dr. Koop was the Surgeon General of the United States appointed by Reverend Reagan.  He became an icon as much for his turn-of-the-century ship captain looks and his signature bow ties as he did for his persistent messaging on national health issues.  You see, Koop was not the first, but he was the most vocal opponent of cigarette smoking.

The U.S. Surgeon General is not actually a real General and does not command an army, but the position does convey with a powerful bully pulpit from which the incumbent can promote various health pronouncements.  During his 7 plus years in the office, Koop’s department released 8 reports on the dangers of cigarette smoking and the first on the consequences of second hand smoke.

25 years later, smoking has gone up in smoke.

In 1985, over 30% of adults in this country smoked.  You could smoke on elevators.  You could smoke on airplanes.  You could smoke in restaurants and in the mall.  Smokers could smoke at their desks at work.  It’s hard to remember how pervasive cigarette smoking was, but it was everywhere.  

By 2009, less than 20% of U.S. adults smoke.  You cannot smoke on an elevator.  You cannot smoke on an airplane.  You cannot smoke in restaurants and in the mall.  Smokers cannot smoke at their desks at work (for the vast majority of workers).  You cannot smoke in some outdoor parks in this country.  The attitude about smoking changed and smoking rates decreased.  It became uncool.

Our national relationship with cigarettes was beginning to change, and the change caught fire thanks to Dr. Koop’s commitment to telling the truth about tobacco to the face of the powerful tobacco companies.

Yesterday I read that in my state (commonwealth), a Senate committee endorsed legislation making it illegal for adults to smoke with kids in the car.  The Courts of Justice Committee voted 10-5 to send the bill to the floor for a vote.  Times have indeed changed.  Our commonwealth’s relationship with tobacco has changed.  The safety of children trumped the freedom of adults.  A reasonable restriction on personal freedom will become law in Virginia.

The bill would prohibit smoking in a vehicle in the presence of a child under the age of 15. The offense would be charged as a traffic infraction punishable by a $100 fine. Similar legislation failed in the General Assembly two years ago but time has snuffed the influence of the cigarette industry.  When introduced on the floor, in Virginia, no member of the legislative body spoke against it.

Nobody spoke against it.  In the Old Dominion.

Let’s have a thought experiment .   Fast forward to the year 2038.  In 25 years, guns may be equally seen as insidious threats to public health and their ownership and usage marginalized in this country.  Owning a gun, carrying a loaded gun – these activities, so glorified in our culture like the once mighty Marlboro Man, may become uncool.

Don’t think it could happen?  25 years ago, not many thought that smoking would ever be this taboo, especially in Virginia.  If in 2013, we can have a public debate on whether or not the game of football is too violent, then anything is possible.  

Times change.  Attitudes change.  The attitude about unlimited guns for all will change too.

You can still smoke in Virginia but the once thought unbreakable choke hold of the tobacco industry has been broken.   The right to smoke still exists, but it is restricted for the public good.  Call me in 25 years and we’ll see if guns are equally restricted for the public good.

If Virginia legislators can vote to outlaw an individual smoking in his/her own car without a peep of protest, then it is not a stretch to imagine the day when the romantic imagery of gun ownership may go the way of the Marlboro Man.

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