My housemate and I recently visited a ballyhooed bar in our Payne-Phalen neighborhood. Retrofitted in an old building, Ward 6 is intimate, elegant, yet simple. It seems misplaced in this poor neighborhood … a refugee from Cathedral Hill.
We sat on a stool at the lacquered-wood and glass bar, fronted by a mirrored backdrop and a chalkboard featuring daily food specials. There were multiple taps featuring local craft beers, and nearby, a large crystal ashtray.
OK. There was no ashtray.
But oh! How that setting screamed for one! The sulfurous flick of a match, the serpentine swirl of smoke, the kiss of Turkish tobacco and India Pale Ale. How glorious!
Of course, I had my cigarette outside in the cold, in the parking lot, divorced from the warmth and intimacy. Minnesota smokers are afforded no public accommodation. We are pariahs.
We are shunned and viewed with disdain and exiled to the outdoors. Yet recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bemoaned the fact that despite the best public policy, smoking rates in Minnesota remain stubbornly high. A full fifth of Minnesota adults continue to smoke. Hundreds of thousands of us continue to light up in the shadows.
Now the governor and Legislature are poised to raise the cigarette tax by almost $1 or more a pack, raising an estimated $365 million over two years. For a new stadium? For the schools? For health care costs, including antismoking efforts? (Every time the phone rings, Daddy, a smoking cessation counselor gets her wings!)
Yes, higher tobacco costs would likely prevent some youngsters from starting. (For some teens, it’s probably easier to score weed … and maybe soon cheaper … than to buy cigarettes.) And higher costs may prod some adults to quit.
But most smokers will greet the new tax with a collective shrug. Smoking is still a pleasure. We will make accommodations. I long ago abandoned ready-made cigarettes because of the cost and now roll my own, whether it be the premium American Spirit blends or cheaper cuts such as Top or Bugler. As inflation rears, I merely sprinkle fewer flecks of tobacco into each paper.
As for my health and longevity? That’s a moral and ethical discussion I regularly have with my doctor. As for my future health care costs? My employer now charges me an after-tax tobacco surcharge on my health insurance premium (and will raise it again in April). More employer-provided policies are adopting such insurance riders. Certainly, that should indemnify me. (Why then do employers not assess an obesity surcharge?)
In January, our state health commissioner appeared shocked, shocked at the CDC report showing that the state dropped out of the top 10 with fewest adult smokers. Despite decades of smoker-financed antismoking zealotry, people continue to enjoy a cigarette or two.
We’ve spent eons attempting to erase the imagery of smoking pleasure, including a ban on advertisements. One innocuous bill in the Legislature would close a loophole in Minnesota tobacco laws by banning the use of real cigarettes in theatrical productions. And wasn’t it just last year that a new version of “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas” edited out Santa’s corncob pipe?
The solution, of course, is prohibition. Shutter the tobacco dispensaries. Make it a misdemeanor to possess or use tobacco. Compel schools to have children turn in their parents.
But I have a better idea.
Let’s instill pleasurable memories of smoking instead of erasing them. In Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (later made into the movie “Total Recall”), “extra-factual” memories are implanted using a truth drug.
Instead of relying on hypnosis to help smokers to quit, why not use Dick’s narkidrine to provide users all the pleasurable memories of smoking … without lighting up? If Minnesotans are going to provide the Mayo Clinic millions to expand, certainly we can insist that the clinic’s scientists invent a narkidrine-like serum.
Imagine being able to go to Ward 6 or any other bistro and enjoy a cigarette and a beer without upsetting so many people. The state can’t tax tobacco memories.
Or can they?
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Doug Champeau is a writer from St. Paul.