We’re all ‘smokers’ here and now

Dear Uma: Another summer of smoke and blood red sun as the forest fires devour the trees in various nearby areas.

Dear Uma:

Another summer of smoke and blood red sun as the forest fires devour the trees in various nearby areas. It adds an edge to living here; the smell is a constant reminder of how easily we could find our homes and businesses obliterated, our every trace gone.

There is a feeling of coming together among the townsfolk; we are in this together, for good or for ill. It’s not a bad thing, this reminder of our commonality, our dependence on one another.

There was rumour of a new study which has good news for smokers and ever-hopeful, I went looking for the source. It hasn’t been a huge struggle to stay off cigarettes this quit time, but there is a small stubborn part of me that yearns yet for the flame, the smoke, the deep inhalation and the streaming misty sigh of the exhalation. It never occurred to me the ‘good news’ might be another way to aid in staying off the weed; I was looking to find some believable evidence that smoking cigarettes is a harmless activity and if convinced, I would be stripping off that narrow cellophane band right now.

Yeah, there is a pack in the deep freeze; it is there in the event we have a smoking guest who runs out of cigarettes late in the evening when every store in town is closed. It is just another thing that makes me a thoughtful host.

I didn’t find the actual study but I did come across an article about smoking versus obesity as a health issue and discovered many new and interesting facts about the two characteristics deemed most socially undesirable in a person, regardless of gender, race, colour or creed.

The many millions that have been spent on programs aimed at getting people to quit smoking and on the passing of anti-smoking laws have paid off in that the rate of smokers has indeed dropped. It has dropped to well under 20 per cent, with many experts claiming the figure to be substantially lower, and there it has held fast for two decades. It would seem those with a weaker attachment to the weed, or a higher vulnerability to social mores, have quit the habit, leaving the field to the dedicated, the hard-core, the fiercely defensive puffers.

Why, researchers wondered, and more importantly how, did these folks manage to maintain their practice in the face of social disapproval? What made them seemingly immune to being ostracized at parties and other assemblies?

Well, smokers are a loyal bunch; in their social groupings, the ones who quit did so in groups and those who maintained the habit also formed attachments to one another. The diverse behaviour of these two groups was most evident in large gatherings; there it became a study that didn’t demand too much of the observers. Anyone who has ever attended a party of any sort could have told these earnest, well-funded folks what happens.

Smokers tend to cluster; this is a result of being ‘pushed out to the edge of their social networks.’ In a simpler language, smokers end up literally outside; they gather on the decks, or in the yards of the party places while the non-smokers hang out indoors, close to the booze and the food. Thus, smokers have a support group wherever they go, a situation of solidarity that aids in dissipating the social pressure of disapproval.

James Fowler, political scientist at the University of California San Diego sums it up: “Our research shows that networks polarized between smokers and non-smokers started in the mid ‘80s (partly due to public health campaigns) means that it is harder to reach smokers for interventions these days. Even if you get them to stop, they have friends who smoke, and there is a good chance they will relapse.”

Cee, my best friend here, quit smoking when I did and I don’t attend enough parties to find the group of smokers in solidarity Fowler promises; no good news for me.

I have gained 10 pounds since giving up cigarettes, so onto the rest of the article: the health hazards of obesity.

In the relentless and cruel competition for funding scientists must make a good case for increasing the dollars for their particular pursuit of knowledge, and obesity is the new panic, the latest in the media fear-mongering that keeps us all off balance while being on edge and always vulnerable to the promises of a magical and effortless panacea.

The best argument for more money to study the social behaviour of the round folks is the discovery that obesity is ‘contagious;’ if you have a fat friend (and who doesn’t?) you increase the likelihood of becoming obese yourself. This resonated with me; Cee has also gained weight, the result of our frequent get-togethers now featuring snacks with our drinks. We swallow and chew, whereas we used to swallow and puff.

Obese people don’t have to self-segregate the way smokers do; you may gain weight from hanging with your chubby friend but you still maintain friendships with non-obese people. When obese people decide to lose weight they are likely to have some people in their social circle to turn to for support for the improvement. This means that peer pressure, and social intervention, can still be effective for obesity. Thus it is reasoned, reduced spending on preventing cigarette smoking in favour of upping it for obesity may be justified in terms of the payoff in changing unhealthy behaviour.

There is nothing new in finding that slender non-smokers are the epitome of human perfection, while fat puffers are at the bottom of the heap. The gap is even wider if the slender non-smoker is a pretty youth and the well-cushioned person eating fudge sundaes and following up with an Export A is middle-aged and worn.

It is not a pretty picture when envisioned at its extremes, but the truth seems to lie somewhere in that space which is the biggest – the land of ‘between.’ The majority of us are somewhere in there, either struggling to move up, or passively sinking.

My special interest, were I engaged in a scientific endeavour of this nature, would be the study of those people who are enjoying their lives, those blessed few who seem to have arrived at a place where they are comfortable with who and what they are – the people who appear to be having a good time no matter where they are or who they are with. You see them hanging with the smokers on the deck, though they don’t always smoke. They can be found at the buffet with friends, heaping up their plates with pastas and fried chicken, or sometimes with lettuce and tomatoes. They are not particularly gorgeous, nor are they scary-looking, and they are neither fat or thin, old or young.

In Watson Lake I have observed more of this sort of cheerful socializer than anywhere else. Admittedly, my experience of North American cities and towns has been limited, but I have been in social situations in places other than this small village, and I am by nature an observer. I have attributed this plethora of relaxed folks to the scarcity of choices; we don’t have enough people in this town to be able to cluster in totally like-minded groups other than in the meetings held by clubs or professional organizations.

Our social gatherings are truly representative of all the types and behaviours that scientists have labelled in their tireless quest for understanding our species and it makes for happier, more comfortable fellowship.

In the pursuit of a good time in good company the smokers and the eaters mix easily with the nons and there is no talk of who is right or wrong, good or bad. Peer pressure? Forget it; we are united in the simple fact w te live in this place, a tiny group in the midst of this enormous wilderness, and our getting together is the best kind of solidarity.

Besides, in this summer of forest fires, we are all smokers.



Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.

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