03/16/2012 05:07 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebecois Smokers Don't Have Much Else to Live For


At first, I was rather annoyed at the two million Quebecers who are seeking reparations from Big Tobacco in a class-action lawsuit to the tune of $27 billion. These people, I told myself, are reaching for a scapegoat to mask their own poor decisions, and worse, expect to cash in on those mistakes. The Quebec smokers were the agents of their own misfortune, they have no one to blame for their addiction and health problems but themselves.

But after a few days of introspection I find myself feeling more and more sympathy for the people who have attached themselves to this suit against Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, and JTI-Macdonald. How defeated by smoking they must feel.

How sad to admit that a simple cigarette has outwitted their common sense, and how pathetic to request monetary compensation for effectively failing in one's own personal struggle. These people are completely spent -- they will remain smokers until death finally extinguishes their flame. If suing Big Tobacco makes them feel even a tiny bit better about their miserable lives, I'm fine with that -- besides, forcing the peddlers of poison to cough up some dough could hardly be considered a bad thing.

And then the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a $54-million anti-smoking advertising campaign -- with ads that show, for example, an amputee with his prosthetics set aside and the words, "A tip from a former smoker: Allow extra time to put on your legs." I was aghast. Not because I have a problem with the use of disturbing pictures to scare smokers and non-smokers alike (Canadian smokers have been dealing with horrific pictures of burned-out lungs, struggling fetuses, and yellowed teeth on their cigarette packs for a long time now), but because the tone was so completely inappropriate.

The ad is smart-assy and snarky, and it portrays smokers -- there's no other way to say this -- as losers. This seems to me an indelicate approach: convincing people to stop (or never start) smoking is a noble cause, but throwing smokers under the bus while wearing an ironic smirk is uncouth to say the least.

People who don't smoke tend to belittle nicotine addiction, as if those who succumb to it have dug their own graves and are therefore unworthy of sympathy, dignity, and assistance. By contrast, if someone we know falls into alcoholism -- nicotine addiction's close cousin -- we recognize our duty to help as best we can, with words of encouragement and by organizing interventions and hiding the booze when they come over.

It's an unexplainable double-standard. We coddle the alcoholic, nurse him to health, but dismiss the smoker as a lost cause because, ultimately, we think he is unworthy of our help. He fell into a trap even though its perils were well-documented, even though parents and schools told him to stay away. If he couldn't, or wouldn't, see the warning signs, well, that's not our problem.

Instead, we berate him with words and images designed to show him how wrong he is, without acknowledging the crippling addiction he faces or, for that matter, the pleasure he receives from cigarettes (and let's be honest, there is discernible enjoyment in smoking -- that is, until it is completely replaced by pain). We make an example out of the smoker -- we depict him as injured, with the message, "You don't want to end up like this guy, so don't smoke" painted across his forehead. In short, we turn him into a circus freak.

Cigarette smoking has declined dramatically in Canada in recent years. Statistics Canada figures from 2010 show that 20.8 per cent -- around six million people over the age of 12 -- smoke. That's down from nearly 50 per cent in 1965. Even more encouragingly, in 2009, half the population aged 20 to 24 had never smoked -- if they're not smoking then, they'll probably never smoke. The evidence suggests that fewer people (and, crucially, fewer young people) are smoking. And even if there will always be smokers, as time goes on there will undoubtedly be less of them.

In that sense, the anti-smoking crusade has been successful -- the crude ads have done their job. But there's a difference between winning and winning the right way -- isn't that what we try to instill in children? I can't see why we couldn't achieve the same results without all the vitriol and negativity, without depriving smokers of our sympathy and their dignity. In the end, as they endure levels of pain we hope to never have to experience -- all the while still addicted to the very thing killing them -- that's really all they'll have to fall back on.