Thursday, August 9, 2007

Smokers Are Invasive Species

(From the August 9, 2007 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I just had a realization. Smokers are different from the rest of us. In fact they are a different species, an invasive species.

Ironically, I had this epiphany this week in the land of tobacco—Virginia—where I have been telling friends about the beauty of our Lake Michigan beaches. But at one point I had to admit it’s not all perfect. I explained about the algae caused be zebra mussels, the depleted fisheries caused by the goby, and the cigarette butts in the sand caused by smokers.

That’s right—zebra mussels, goby fish, and smokers. All three are strange, invasive species despoiling Lake Michigan’s balanced ecosystem.

A little history may help to explain. Zebra mussels and goby fish are called invasive species because they are not indigenous to the Great Lakes. They come in the ballast water of ships from afar when it is released into our fresh water. These species wreak havoc when they invade our local waters. Our state and federal representatives are trying to enact laws forcing ships to dump their ballast in the ocean, before they enter the Great Lakes.

To understand smokers as an invasive species requires a little more history. Here in Virginia, tobacco plantations are interwoven into local and national history. Within the past few months, the National Geographic ran an article about how the early colonists adapted tobacco-growing practices from the Native Americans, and soon this part of the country all along the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River was virtually a contiguous tobacco farm. But as long as there has been tobacco, there have been efforts to ban its use. The Atlantic Monthly pointed out in a small article a few months ago that such efforts date way back to the 1600s. But bans on smoking have never held.

Now, the tide seems to be turning against smoking once again. New York City, which made smoking in public not only acceptable but fashionable back in the ‘20s, has a ban on smoking in public places. France, the cultural pinnacle for many global elites, has done the same thing in the past year. Even Hollywood, which used cigarettes and cigars as props to glamorize actors, has recently done some rare introspection about the consequences of including smoke in so many scenes. So it’s not entirely surprising that several Michigan municipalities, and most recently the Ottawa County parks, have enacted smoking bans.

I applaud the ban. But I’m not holding my own breath that other people will stop exhaling smoke. Just as goby fish and zebra mussels will be hard to eradicate, smokers are unfortunately not going anywhere.

My skepticism stems from legal reality. Smokers will invoke their “rights.” To some extent they have a point. It’s their body. More appropriately, it’s their funeral.

On the other hand, as is the case with all legal tensions, there is the notion of responsibility to society that counteracts the argument about individual rights. Smokers need to think about a host of ways their messy habit negatively affects society. But they don’t. They upset the balance. This qualifies them as an invasive species.

Smokers of course are harming their own lungs and other aspects of their personal health when they inhale. But there are also numerous scientific articles demonstrating the harm of second-hand smoke when smokers exhale. That leads to cost as another social consequence of smoking. Insurance costs are higher for all of us because of the huge number of cases of cancer, emphysema and other diseases born by those who insist on smoking. Even if you have a non-smoker’s discount on your health insurance policy, there’s a good chance part of your premium pays for oxygen tanks and other treatments for those who didn’t exercise personal responsibility toward their own health or that of society at large. General quality of life and common courtesy are another aspect of responsibility smokers should consider. Aside from the health risks, smokers need to consider that many of us do not want to smell smoke when we dine or recreate. Smokers may have a right to smoke. But the rest of us have no less right to breath God’s good fresh air. Quality of life also relates to litter. The main reason the Ottawa County Parks enacted the ban on smoking is because 50 percent of the litter they must pick up from the beaches is tobacco related. Just as zebra mussels abandon their shells on the shore, smokers leave their butts behind on the sand.

I reflected on this one day at one of our beaches just before traveling to tobacco country. Two young ladies near my wife and I smoked almost constantly while at the beach. Upon finishing a cigarette, they snuffed it in the sand next to their blankets. When they left, they picked up everything except the leftovers of their selfish indulgence. They are either too selfish or ignorant to see the difference between the sand in a common ashtray and that of a previously pristine natural wonder.

I shook my head and went for a walk. I saw zebra mussels at the water’s edge. I saw goby fish on the pier. And I saw countless cigarette butts in the sand. Sigh. I wish all of the invasive species upsetting the balance in our lakes and beaches could be discharged as ballast far out to sea.