This New Year’s Eve will mark the fifth anniversary of the day I quit smoking.
I am not looking for any sort of accolade or pat on the back for doing something that was a no-brainer.
I didn’t do it for health reasons. My motivation was purely economic. The price of a pack of cigarettes had risen about 11 bucks and I was freelancing at the time. I kind of had to choose: cigarettes or food. It wasn’t a clear-cut choice, but I decided to go with the food.
I haven’t looked back once. I never needed nicotine gum, prescription drugs or hypnotism. And I never relapsed once. I do miss it from time to time—especially when I walk into a space where someone has just been indulging—but the cost factor still hovers over me like Damocles’ sword.
The reason the cost of cigarettes is so ridiculously high are the taxes—in this case, something commonly known as a “sin tax.” A sin tax is a flat tax on what the government deems to be socially harmful goods—not just tobacco, but alcohol and gambling winnings as well.
Actually, the idea of a sin tax gave me an idea that might solve the gun and healthcare issues all in one fell swoop. Let guns be sold unfettered—anywhere and to anyone. Six-year-olds could buy an Uzi at the county fair if they have the cash. The Second Amendment would continue to exist in all its crimson glory. But what we do is levy a hardcore sin tax on bullets to the point where any would-be mass shooter would need a second mortgage on their hovel just to load a revolver. Then all that revenue allocated through the sin tax could fund nationwide healthcare. Free EpiPens for everyone!
Brilliant, I know. But I digress.
Back when I was turning my back on Big Tobacco, a friend of mine suggested that I use something known as an e-cigarette to transition to a smoke-free life. They don’t burn, so they don’t “smoke” she explained. They use vapor instead, which won’t stink up the room, your breath, your hair or your clothes. I bought some to see what the hype was about, but back then the damn things had so many parts and complicated mechanisms that I just threw up my hands and surrendered. It was easier to just go cold turkey and endure the sweat-filled nights and fever dreams.
Well, since that time, e-cigs have gotten much simpler and more user-friendly. And entrepreneurs worldwide have discovered other ways to exploit human tobacco cravings. They’ve come up with something called a Juul, basically, an e-cig that looks like a computer thumb drive. And knowing that a significant number of teenagers are essentially stupid, they’ve developed insidious marketing campaigns with teens directly in the crosshairs. Electronic tobacco products now come in a variety of flavors such as cotton candy, crème brulee and, yes, Swedish Fish.
And it has been working like a dream. E-cig use has skyrocketed 900 percent in the past five years. Most teens, the experts say, don’t even realize they are ingesting nicotine—one of the most addictive drugs on the planet. All they know is that when they wake up each morning, they feel compelled to vape up another Snickers-flavored Juul. These are the kids who, on their worst day, would never even go near a traditional combustible cigarette.
The vaping problem has reached epidemic proportions, especially right here in Mahopac. Putnam County school superintendents say not a day goes by when a teen vaper has to be remanded to the principal’s office for disciplinary action. They say the kids can often use their candy corn-flavored Juuls in the classroom right under their teacher’s nose without fear of discovery.
There haven’t been a lot of health studies about the long-term effect of vaping; it’s such a new product. However, they do know that one horrific consequence of vaping, the American Lung Association says, is something known as popcorn lung, the nickname for bronchiolitis obliterans—a condition that damages the lungs’ smallest airways. Want to know more about it? Google it. It’s gross.
Most folks thought we had put a cap on the War on Tobacco. Smoking levels had been at an all-time low and most local laws prevent smoking everywhere except in the crawlspaces of abandoned homes. But the vaping/e-cig phenomenon has brought it roaring back with a vengeance, prompting lawmakers nationwide to put the issue back under the microscope. Westchester County legislators in June passed a law known as Tobacco 21, which raises the smoking and vaping age to 21. Rockland County is also part of the T-21 bandwagon.
Earlier this summer, Putnam County Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra announced she would introduce the T-21 legislation. She held a press conference with lots of fanfare and tons of experts and supporters extolling the virtues of raising the legal smoking age. Scuccimarra later told me that the passing of the law was in no way guaranteed. It needed a “super majority,” meaning six of nine lawmakers have to vote yes.
She said she was hearing the same shopworn arguments: if you were old enough to go to war, you should be old enough to choose whether to smoke/vape or not.
It’s a specious argument and the refuge of the uninformed and uneducated.
Listen, I have libertarian leanings for sure—believing that people should be able to do what they want if it doesn’t hurt others. But this IS hurting others. In high school, 18-year-olds can run in the same circle as 15- and 16-year-olds and they are buying them these products. Change the age to 21 and you take away that social factor. That is exactly what’s happened in counties where T-21 has passed.
Here in Putnam, the proposed law is supported by the Health Department, every single school superintendent and high school principals, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and Relay for Life. But there are some county legislators still looking like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.
The law made it out of the Health, Social, Educational & Environmental Committee earlier this month and will go before the full legislative body on Sept. 4. But Amy Sayegh, Mahopac’s rep in the legislation, said she is not optimistic about it passing; there isn’t enough support. This is beyond the pale. If a lawmaker can’t get behind a no-brainer law such as this one, designed to keep our children safe, then I don’t understand why one bothers going into public service.
Helmet laws for motorcyclists have reduced deaths; seat belt laws for cars have reduced deaths. When a guy tried to light his foot on fire on a airplane in an attempt to blow it up, lawmakers responded by making us take our shoes off before we board. It probably doesn’t help, but it gives the illusion of helping—so that’s something. At least it makes us feel better.
If you think T-21 is a good idea and could help save lives, let your county legislators know. Call them, write them, stop them in the streets and cajole them. Tell them how you feel.
Then once we get this law passed, we can work on my bullet sin tax idea.