Friday, July 16, 2010

Citizens of Leisure: Pass the Smokes and Jerky

Recently, a television news commentator, whose initials are A(lbert) B(ray) C(ary), called for sharply higher cigarette taxes to keep young people from smoking. If only engineering social behavior with the tax code was as simple as ABC, then we could rid ourselves of our sins for pennies here and dollars there.

To understand why tobacco smoking became popular, one needs to start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the Virginia Colony in the late 1500s. Raleigh learned of tobacco from the native Indians, who smoked the leaves in their religious ceremonies. This distinction, the religious rite, makes tobacco desirable — not its nicotine.

In his classic study of human behavior, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” Thorstein Veblen demonstrates that in the earliest, primitive human tribes, leisure was accorded to a few distinct class members of the tribe. Leisure — not money, not furs, not gold, not emeralds — was the very first emblem of wealth. What we would call the religious hierarchy of the tribe — the shamans — were afforded leisure because the tribe believed their duties should exempt them from the menial labor of gathering food or building shelter.

What was true one million years ago is still true today.

Veblen coined the term “conspicuous leisure” to mean the epitome of leisure for leisure’s sake. Because tobacco was afforded religious status, it also received leisure status. Tobacco smoking, then, is an act of conspicuous leisure. Had all the Virginia Indians chewed tobacco and spit tobacco juice on the ground, Sir Walter Raleigh never would have introduced tobacco to Queen Elizabeth’s court. Once tobacco arrived in England, it did not take long for tobacco to circle the world.

And it is important to note that certain ritual behaviors accompanied the act of smoking. In Holland, for example, the bars and public houses featured long-stemmed, ceramic pipes. The stem, a foot long or more, would be snapped off after a patron finished smoking, thus leaving a clean mouthpiece for the next smoker. (Pass the peace pipe, please.)

In gentlemen’s clubs, a manservant offered expensive cigars to the members and then trimmed the stogie and lit it. Sherlock Holmes, a man of leisure, puffed on a pipe that he had ritualistically filled with exotic tobacco. A gentleman in the 1950s would take two cigarettes from his sterling silver pocket case, light them both, and gracefully hand one to his lady.

If smokers valued tobacco only for its nicotine, then I would submit that none of this ritual would have ever come about. Leisure time is the only way that people can show off what Veblen coined “conspicuous consumption.” The English fox hunt is a prime example of how the landed gentry blended conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption. The fox hunt, both conspicuous and pointless, was described by Oscar Wilde as “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.”

To be sure, West Virginia’s middle-class workers cannot enjoy their leisure time by foxhunting on horseback with hounds. But they can crisscross the countryside on four-wheelers, blow their bugles at imaginary hobgoblins and finish their hunt by consuming rounds of beer, Vienna sausages served on toothpicks and rashers of deer jerky.

Once again: the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.

Sharply raising the price of cigarettes by government levy presents a problem that abolitionists don’t comprehend. When you add $1 per pack in taxes, you may very well elevate cigarettes from the status of conspicuous leisure to that of conspicuous consumption. High-priced cigarettes, then, become a badge of leisure. And the likelihood of expanding the black market for cigarettes also adds to their mystique, desirability and status in this regard.

Tobacco use has dropped considerably during the past 50 years. But the decline has nothing to do with government policy, education or higher prices. Narcotics and mood-changing drugs have become easily available. It is not that tobacco use has dropped but that tobacco use has been supplanted by newer forms of conspicuous consumption. It is now reported that more than 70 million Americans are “being treated for pain.” I will leave you to translate that euphemism in the privacy of a smoke-free environment.

For the record, I smoke. I am a man of leisure. I write opinion columns.