What is “the new smoking”?

It might not feel like it, but hazards are everywhere

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Back in the early 1960s it was a common sight to see a mother in a grocery store, calmly smoking a cigarette, a couple kids in the cart. I distinctly remember large chrome ash cans at each endcap at my local Lucky grocery store.

People smoked in restaurants, movie theaters – and even on airplanes (it’s difficult to comprehend the absurdity of a “Smoking section” on an aircraft).

If you go to an old-school style barber shop, you are likely to sit in a vintage barber chair with a tiny ashtray in the arm of the chair. Can you imagine smoking while getting a haircut?

My point is that not that long ago, smoking tobacco was something that was done essentially everywhere.

The idea of limiting – or restricting – public smoking was seen as sacrilegious – even un-American.

But, as the saying goes, that was then, and this is now.

The problem with “now” is that it is the ultimate of floating targets – what seems reasonable, essential, maybe divinely ordained by one generation could easily seem embarrassing or even appalling by another generation.

Trends fade, tastes change, technologies emerge and what made sense just a generation ago, might strike the next generation as baffling if not insulting.

Few of us could imagine smokers pushing shopping carts in our local grocery stores, but what do we think of as standard behavior now that might strike future generations as distasteful or befuddling.

We might get a few hints from how we describe things. Have you noticed how a habit or action might be spoken of as “The new smoking”?

There are entire categories of common everyday behaviors that, it turns out, are packed with negative aspects if not direct threats to health.


“Text neck” (a range of neck and spinal problems tied to the posture of texting), obesity and diabetes related to high fructose corn syrup (recently “fructose”), inhalation of plastic micro-fibers from drinking out of plastic water bottles, vision problems specific to those of us who spend hours each day staring at a luminous screen, and even the hazards of sitting are only a few of the unintentional dangers of modern life.

But how about the most ubiquitous, obvious and most dangerous of all?

If someone, an anthropologist from another planet perhaps, was studying North America or most of Europe and asked the most obvious question – what is the greatest cause of injury and death of those, mostly, in their prime of life?

And how is such a set of behaviors not only allowed but actively encouraged by virtually every aspect of society from movies to music to everyday assumptions?

In America, we love our cars. But they don’t love us back – in fact cars are the leading cause of death and injury among all ages groups – especially children.

Many major international cities from Paris and Madrid to London, Copenhagen, Denmark, Dublin, Ireland and Helsinki, Finland have major restrictions on autos while many smaller cities from Venice to Dubrovnik, Croatia have banned cars entirely.

Few things, if any, are more sacred to most Americans than our cars.

To have our car kept from us, for any purpose, under any conditions, is our worst fantasy.

A generation or so ago, many of us felt the same about smoking – lots of people felt that it was their “right” to smoke anywhere they wanted to.

It wasn’t the laws that made people change – it was the social atmosphere, even (sometimes) the public shaming that made smoking, once extremely common – if not ever-present – suddenly seem out of place if not downright anti-social.

The same thing is happening with cars in more and more places. (1*) Vehicles of all kinds, even delivery trucks, Ubers and taxis are becoming more and more unwelcome.

Shopping is an entirely different experience in a car-free open air market like this one in central Edinburgh. Photo: Morf Morford
Shopping is an entirely different experience in a car-free open air market like this one in central Edinburgh. Photo: Morf Morford

As time goes by, shared assumptions and values change, first slowly, then suddenly, and what seemed routine and acceptable now seems odd if not jarring.

Social behavior from a distance is very strange – the more something is done, like smoking a generation ago or driving in a city center now, the more invisible it is, while when one person does it, it stands out abruptly.

One car in a quiet neighborhood or pedestrian center is often seen as an intrusion while a constant stream of cars is barely noticeable. (2*)

If you have ever been in a pedestrian-centric market or public square, it becomes all too obvious how vibrant, appealing, safe and yes, profitable, these kinds of public spaces can be.

One by one cities around the world, from China to Greece and France, are changing their policies.

A few American cities are studying their options.

Our lives and our cities are so car-centric that it is difficult to imagine even the slightest restrictions on our automotive mobility and access.

Cars, after all, are virtually everywhere and most of us use them every day. We see driving a car as our right to do any time or any place we want.

A generation ago, they said that about smoking.

(1*) You can see more on European city vehicle policy changes here – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/14/driving-city-clean-air-zones-birmingham?

(2*) As Vice President Mike Pence learned when he took an eight car motorcade on a car-free island last summer – https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/462526-mike-pence-travels-to-michigans-mackinac-island-in-eight-car