I feel sorry for people who smoke cigarettes, but not for the reasons you might expect.
Just look at them over there, huddled like outcasts in “special areas” the legally mandated number of feet away from that office, that bar and – since 2015 – all Mecklenburg County parks and greenways.
Or look to the U.K., where the nation’s High Court ruled Thursday that all tobacco packaging must be uniformly olive green and is to feature large, bold-face slogans like “Smoking clogs your arteries” and “Smoking kills – quit now.”
It’s almost become trendy to at least stigmatize smokers, and at most, treat them like full-blown lepers.
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So I honestly can’t imagine what it would be like to be a smoker today. I can, however, imagine what it would have been like to be a smoker eight years ago. From 1991 to 2008, actually.
Which probably seems incongruous to people who have come into my life since I quit. Because I’ve become a different person since then, and run – quite literally – in entirely different circles now. In that, I run all the time. And bike. And swim. And lift weights.
I’ve run at least 16 marathons (lost count at some point), completed two Ironman triathlons and work out at least once a day, often twice.
On many training runs, I’ve plowed past puffers standing on street corners while turning up a second-hand-smoke-filled nose to the offending parties, remarking either to myself or to running companions how gross that is, wondering why they won’t stop killing themselves, and generally just thinking less of “those people.”
Then one day late last month, I was running by myself while on vacation in Florida when I passed a smoker and had an epiphany. (I can’t explain why or how, except to say: Revelations come more often than you’d think when you run as much as I do.)
I suddenly realized that I need to stop shaming smokers.
It’s not about being empathetic or sympathetic. And it’s not because there’s nothing wrong with smoking. There is. It’s a disgusting, terrible, potentially deadly habit. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that tobacco use causes nearly 6 million deaths per year worldwide.
I mean, there’s a reason we have so much disdain for smokers. Same reason we don’t like body odor, or a neighbor’s dog pooping on our front lawn, or having to listen to somebody else’s obscenity-filled rap music as their car rolls past us: Smoking offends one or more of our five senses.
But I was just struck – in that moment, on that run – by how interesting it is that we stigmatize smoking so brutally.
Why, for example, shouldn’t we at the same time require people who can’t resist fast food to eat their Big Macs and Whoppers out of uniformly olive green containers featuring very large, bold-face slogans like “Trans fat clogs your arteries” and “Fast food kills – quit now.”
Granted, you can’t die from second-hand ketchup, but there are lots and lots and lots of habits out there that are as potentially harmful to long-term health or well-being as smoking. Obvious ones – abusing painkillers and/or alcohol, etc. – but more subtle stuff, too: not getting enough sleep, snacking relentlessly whether you’re actually hungry, spending too much time on the couch watching TV or playing video games. “Forgetting” to floss, or wear sunscreen, or get annual physicals.
No matter how much plant-based cuisine we put in front of us, no matter how many cold-pressed juices we drink, we can’t escape the truth: We’re all guilty of unhealthy habits.
So when you see a smoker, I encourage you to use that moment not as an opportunity to look down on him, but to look within. To consider your own flaws.
That’s certainly my plan – and if I can ever kick this two-Snickers-bars-per-day habit, I’m sticking to it.