As I traverse the streets of Everett (Wash.) each day I encounter cigarettes everywhere—in mouths, in hands, and on sidewalks. It seems that nearly half the people I see are sucking on lighted sticks, blowing plumes of smoke into the air for all to breathe.
Everett is a poor city, in the main, though there are pockets of relative wealth in nicer neighborhoods. Many inhabitants lack permanent shelter as they shuffle to and fro with their life’s accumulated possessions strapped to their backs or in pulled caddies I used to observe in airports when I still travelled by plane. More often than not they’re wielding cancer sticks.
Poverty correlates strongly with smoking, so it does not surprise me to witness cigarettes in abundance along downtown Everett corridors. I do not see smokers on Capitol Hill where my daughter and her family reside. It takes money to live there. Lots of it.
So, why do poor people smoke? The New York Times pondered the question in this article.
When smoking first swept the United States in the early decades of the 20th century, it took hold among the well-to-do. Cigarettes were high-society symbols of elegance and class, puffed by doctors and movie stars. By the 1960s, smoking had exploded, helped by the distribution of cigarettes to soldiers in World War II. Half of all men and a third of women smoked.
But as evidence of smoking’s deadly consequences has accumulated, the broad patterns of use by class have shifted: Smoking, the leading cause of preventable death in the country, is now increasingly a habit of the poor and the working class.
Richer people, then, heed the warnings and adjust their behaviors. Poor people, while aware that cigarettes kill, are less able to resist their apparent allure. (Note: I’ve never smoked anything, so I have no idea of tobacco’s appeal, though my grandfather was rarely seen without his pipe or a rolled cigarette of his own creation.) The Times interviewed residents of Clay County, Kentucky, which has the highest smoker rate in the country. Here are samples of what the people said:
It’s just what we do here.
I’d love to quit but I just can’t, I’m too addicted.
Bored, I guess.
Well, I’m going to die of something.
Better than drugs.
When Manchester, Kentucky, banned cigarette smoking in public areas, smokers took to electronic versions of the stick. Now everyone is doing it, old, young, and in between.