All you need is an (ultra)sound reason to give up the cigs for good

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2013 - 3:56 PM

The American Lung Association has given Minnesota a failing grade on its efforts to fight smoking.

Like an unfiltered Camel, that's harsh.

We passed a Clean Indoor Air Act that made smoking inside as socially unacceptable as indecent exposure, and passed another law that made bars smoke-free so you could concentrate on punching your liver.

But we don't tax cigarettes enough, says the ALA, and we get an "F" on programs that prevent people from starting and helping them stop.

So how could we reduce smoking?

Clever ads on buses won't do it. Smokers see the ad drive past and think, Hey, that horrible thing could happen to me. Then again, I don't take the bus. So never mind.

Horrible TV commercials with ravaged people have, however, proved highly effective at making smokers quit. Unfortunately, what they're quitting is watching TV, because, man, who needs to see that.

Some ideas:

• Junior high tours of airport smoking lounges in other cities. Kids, see what will happen if you start? You will pay $9 for a Coca-Cola and inhale an atmosphere that is chemically indistinguishable from Venus while listening to people attempt to bring up phlegm from a reservoir in their ankles.

• Make smokes harder to get. Once upon a time anyone could get them from a vending machine, but that was when 87 percent of everyone smoked, including people at the Society for the Prevention of Smoking, and candy cigarettes were not only legal but thrown from passing cars by clowns hired by Phillip Morris.

Times have changed, but they're still easy to get. So, hire an old actor. Make him wear an oxygen tank. Put the cigarettes way up high, so he has to get a ladder to get them, complete with conspicuous gasps as he ascends. Everyone else in line will mutter: Bad enough you do that to yourself, but you have make an old man suffer.

• Pass a law requiring all cigarettes to be 6 feet long. No one who was alone could light one.

• As for that tax: The state brings in more than half a billion in tobacco taxes and lawsuit settlement revenues. With that much lucre flowing in, why not pay every smoker $100,000 to quit?

You'd have to prove you were a smoker, of course. It wouldn't be enough to show up with a crumpled pack of Marlboros and a half-empty Bic lighter and cough half-heartedly. You'd have to inhale deeply without bringing up your lunch. Since you can't smoke indoors, everyone involved in the test would have to go outside, and if you made sure to stand 20 feet away from the door before you lit up, they'd know you were faking. No one does that.

You'd be tested daily, because otherwise smokers would cheat. What? I tested positive? Oh -- that. We were out on the town. I sneezed real hard, and my face went in an ashtray, and before I knew it there was a cigarette in my mouth. Oh, come on, you can't be serious, you don't believe me? OK, just give me $50,000 then.

You're right -- logistically, it's unworkable, and the potential for fraud and abuse is unavoidable. That's kept us from implementing so many other government programs, so we shouldn't make an exception here.

• Tax credits for newborns. Really. I gave up cigarettes the day I saw my daughter on the ultrasound. Walked outside in the parking lot, had one last Carlton, realized that it tasted like a glue stick that had worked its way through a donkey's intestines, and said "that's it." But I was ready to quit. A few weeks before at the grocery store, I had said to the clerk that I needed a carton of Carltons. He looked up from the items he was beeping over the scanner and said:

"Do you really?"

Oh, he got them, but it was my last carton. I never forgot that. He's still at the grocery store, too, and every time he beeps my groceries, I think of that moment. Once I actually tried to say, "You know, mind your own business," but it came out, "Thank you. Thank you for that."

His name's Mike. A billion dollars of ad campaigns and billboards did nothing. It took a picture on an ultrasound screen and a Mike.

You'll have more money and you won't stink, and we have gum so you don't get twitchy.

Use tobacco revenue for that. Otherwise, people might suspect that the taxes and settlement money weren't about smoking, but about tapping a rich, complacent stream of income.

Surely that can't be the case.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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