Saturday, October 2, 2010

Smoking ordinance debate breaks down on social class lines

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, May 27, 2006.

Will smokers lose another battle in the “smoking wars?” We are witnessing a skirmish in Vigo County over the proposed indoor smoking ban. More, however, is going on than just a public health issue. This is just a tip of a much larger iceberg of ongoing conflict: the conflict between the working and lower social classes and the broad middle and upper middle classes.

Social class is something we loathe to speak of in the United States. Nevertheless, we know social class profoundly shapes our lives and society. Most people hold simplistic, if not crude, understandings of social class, usually narrowly equating it with how much money people make.

There is, however, much more to social class than just that.

How one earns their money is important. Earning money, even a lot of it, by carrying out the orders of others under close supervision and facing many job hazards, describes working class. Earning money supervising others, problem solving, and internalizing the company’s goals as their own, describes middle class. A “professional,” who sacrificed many years at school and served long “apprenticeships” describes the upper middle class. Having others work for you and make your money for you describes the upper class. This “class map” is still pretty crude, but it will suffice for now.

Look how the sides of the smoking ban wage war. Those in favor of the smoking ban don’t argue using terms like “rights” or justice or moral language. They argue with experts and the language of science. They will bring studies forward to evidence their point. “It’s not that we don’t like smoking, it’s just unhealthy.” To which, those who oppose the ban respond, “well, you don’t have to go to that smoky restaurant, go find one with fewer smokers or with a nonsmoking policy.”

In turn, the proponents will point out that workers are exposed to secondhand smoke, they don’t have a choice, and shouldn’t, as a matter of their work conditions, be faced with this hazardous environment. They will probably have a study that shows more missed work days for workers exposed to secondhand smoke than those who are not. (Their concern for the working class is suspect. Where was the middle class when a 1980s federal tax change went strong after tips and permitted a lower than minimum wage for many working class jobs?)

It takes resources, financial, skill with numbers, and familiarity and comfort with the language of science, to make the arguments that the pro-smoking-ban side does. Look who the spokesmen are: doctors, some lawyers, and other professional groups. To fight the war at this level is very expensive, especially for lower and working class groups. Tobacco companies could help, but they are so discredited than any information connected to them, would be suspect immediately, even if it had scientific merit. As is often the case, the working and lower classes are left to argue their interests in the name of simple justice and “rights.”

Using the seemingly value-free language of science to make their arguments, the middle class effectively hides the real motive, which is to ban smoking in their presence, a habit once enjoyed across the social classes in the United States, but is now much less common in the “respectable” middle and upper middle classes. The middle class does not pose it as a class issue, they make it a health issue, a common strategy when the middle class attempts to assert its class interests.

It would be believable if the middle classes really were all about public health, but they do not support a rational health-care system that provides universal coverage, nor do they support vigorous government enforcement of workplace safety, and most middle class people are not supporters of unions, which have done more to improve the health and safety of the lower and working classes than our “generous” welfare state.

Culturally, social classes create boundaries. Among the more obvious boundaries are the where and what we live in, our recreational diversions, and the cars we drive. Once, clothes marked members of the different social classes, but with cheap, quality clothing, that is not as evident as it once was.

Smoking has become a class marker. And while the middle class doesn’t want to ban tobacco, they do want to ban the working class from smoking in their presence.

For the record, I don’t smoke and support the smoking ban. That doesn’t change the sociology of the smoking wars.

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