SEATTLE, March 7 (UPI) -- When you walk through Seattle's airport, even in the middle of the night, a de-sexed disembodied male voice informs you that "Sea-Tac Airport is a smoke-free facility. Your cooperation is appreciated." This will be repeated several times before you're allowed to retrieve your luggage and escape.
Lemme point out something here: we already knew that. We didn't arrive in Seattle thinking, "Hmmmm, there don't appear to be any 80-decibel public address announcements warning against smoking like a Communist Commissar with a bullhorn. I guess we can LIGHT ONE UP."
We already know that there is no public airport in America where smoking is legal. We already know that there is no smoking in bank lobbies, or office buildings, or shopping malls. There's no citizen smoker who's thinking, "Let's see, where would be a good place to smoke? I know! The hospital waiting room!"
So after a while you start to wonder, if this is true, then why, on any given day, we're assaulted with announcements like: "It is against federal law to disable, disconnect or tamper with the smoke alarm in the lavatory."
Notice that's it not just something the airline doesn't want you to do they want you to know it's a federal rap!
"It is forbidden to smoke anywhere in the movie theater."
It was forbidden to smoke in movie theaters even when you could smoke everywhere else in the world! (We have to make an exception for Great Britain, which didn't get its fire laws in order until the 1980s.)
"Smoking is forbidden except in designated areas." These are the announcements made in airports, like Atlanta's, where they've decided it's more efficient to simply provide smoking areas than to have people going through security three and four times because they have to go outside to smoke. The smoking "lounges" are inevitably linoleum-floored holding pens with a smattering of old ugly couches (never enough for everyone to have a seat) and giant barrel-shaped ashtrays, as though they're sending a message: Every other waiting area is furnished with ergonomically-designed lounge chairs, but since you're a smoker, we shopped at IKEA.
Increasingly, the smoke prohibitions extend to outdoor areas as well, with yellow lines painted on the asphalt setting off the smoking and non-smoking areas. I'm not sure what the principle is here. As far as I know, there's been no new scientific evidence that smoke in the outdoor open air has been falling instead of rising.
But back to my original question. Why do we have 10,000 actual non-smoking announcements a day when there's no smoker who would dare lighting up in a public place unless he'd first located a sign identifying it as a smoking area? After all, there are lots of other laws you could make public announcements about. You could have P.A. announcers who said, "Welcome to New York's La Guardia Airport. Please remember that this is a gun-free facility. Firearms are prohibited in all areas of the terminal. Your cooperation is appreciated."
You could have a recording at the mall that said, "Please refrain from depositing chewing gum on the undersides of the cafe tables."
In other words, this law has been singled out for some reason. It's the ONLY law that's consistently drummed into our subconscious, almost like the continuously played propaganda tapes of the communists and fascists. It's intended to penetrate at some subliminal level: "There shall be no smoking," "We forbid smoking," "Do not smoke," "Smoking is forbidden," and "Smokers will be prosecuted." On Delta Airlines they even have an announcement that goes, "Smoking is forbidden on this OR ANY OTHER Delta flight." It's not enough for us to be told not to smoke. We need to be reminded that there is no one smoking anywhere else in the entire worldwide Delta system. On New Jersey Transit trains, the sign says, "Smoking is illegal and rude." Wouldn't just "illegal" have summed it up?
Besides which, who would ever try to smoke on an airplane or a train in the FIRST PLACE? Even in the regional airport at Krasnodar, Russia, to use just one example from the ends of the earth, you're not allowed to smoke inside the airport terminal. Why don't they have an announcement: "Do not stab the flight attendant with a box cutter"? Aren't there more important things to be warning us about?
When people are continually warning you against illegal behavior that no one is committing in the first place, you have to wonder what's REALLY going on. Let me take a stab at it. These non-smoking warnings have the feeling of a mantra, a ritualized societal pronouncement that has no practical value but is considered comforting to the bourgeois.
Who makes up the 23 percent of society who smoke? Mostly the poor, the young, and the bohemian all groups that the great middle class has been known to fear. (The cadre of cigar smokers, of which I'm a member, tend to be wealthy and male, but that group is feared as well. Those are the guys who are DESTROYING OUR 401(K)S!)
Since there's no logical reason to be hammering the non-smoking message 24 hours a day, you have to think it's one of two things:
1. It's to marginalize these smoking groups, which would otherwise seem dangerous, in the way that gangs of roving teenage boys seem dangerous.
2. It's an attack on smoking itself. In this case it would be the classic paranoid substitution of a smaller ill for a larger one. Since the real fear that our air is dirty is a fear that's probably based on truth, since factory pollution standards have recently been loosened but since the paranoid citizen feels no possible way to remedy that, he instead directs his anger toward the pale imitation of it, the scruffy tattooed individual smoker who has the misfortune to be standing on the sidewalk.
One aspect that tends to back me up is the wording of the announcements themselves. Whatever happened to plain, simple "No Smoking"? It's direct. It's undeniably clear. Instead, most announcements these days refer to "smoke-free zones" and "non-smoking facilities," as though the emphasis is not on the smoker but the place itself in a sort of ecological purity sense (smoke would upset the fragile harmony of a biologically and chemically balanced system), and, to drive this home, some announcements even THANK YOU for refraining from smoking. As though, if this was any
NORMAL kind of place, we would all light up and have a few laughs, but right now, at this moment, in this ecologically balanced place, we must refrain.
And that sounds passive-aggressive to me. That's like the guy who tells you that the company is "downsizing" when what he really means is that you're fired. Why would he not say "You're fired"? Because he's afraid you'll harm him in some way with a lawsuit, with an ugly scene, with an expose of his ruse. In the same way, these non-smoking announcements are written and structured so as to never say "No Smoking" and to always say, "We have something going on here that precludes smoking, but it doesn't have anything to do with you personally."
Well, we never THOUGHT it had to do with us personally. All we wanted was a big sign that says "You can smoke here." We know the whole arena of public spaces is non-smoking. In fact, even those of us who don't speak a foreign language know how to say "No smoking" in at least five or six of them.
We don't have a problem with it. We're relaxed about it. It's everyone else who is paranoid. Here, have a cigarette. Calm down.
(Bob Briggs writes several columns for UPI. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site, joebobbriggs.com, or at P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.)