I just saw the announcement that CVS will stop selling cigarettes.
IT’S ABOUT TIME.
Really, this decision is one that should have been made by all major drugstores back in 1964, when the surgeon general finally acknowledged decades of mounting evidence that cigarette-smoking is one of the stupidest, most harmful habits ever conceived by humans. I mean, the irony of selling addictive carcinogens alongside antibiotics and other life-saving drugs is downright emetic. The fact that no major companies made this decision earlier is a testament to a general lack of conscience in the business: Money, not customers’ well-being, has always been sovereign.
On hearing this announcement, my first reaction was to worry that a lot of smokers — people wedded to their “freedom” to be slaves to nicotine — might boycott CVS. Really, though, this worry is unfounded. It was certainly a calculated decision, and I have no doubt that CVS thoroughly analyzed the risks and the benefits of it after determining exactly how many customers they’d lose and how much positive media attention they’d receive.
Regardless of CVS’s underlying motives, this decision is a good thing. What’s important is that people stop smoking. And hopefully, this will be the trigger that sets the dominoes falling, with Walgreens and all other major retailers following suit. Then maybe cigarettes will become rare, and fewer people will be enslaved by nicotine.
But it’s not just retailers who should step up. At some point, I’d also like to see authors and filmmakers break off their romance with the cigarette. The curling wisp of smoke climbing up through the air from the glowing tip of a cigarette has been a staple image, a shorthand for the definition of cool, for as long as novels and films have existed. It still is today, and I think that needs to stop. The image of a cigarette should be shorthand for “dirty,” not “cool.”
Still, this is a very good first step. Perhaps we will actually be able to eradicate smoking within the next generation.
This might also be a good time to look around and see what else needs to be changed. Maybe we can respond better to other hazards than we did to cigarettes. That is, maybe next time it won’t take us a hundred years to bring about the needed change, and we won’t see companies covering up ugly truths that they’ve known about for decades.
One possible candidate for the next issue is sugar. We’re seeing a similar trend of mounting evidence about the negative effects of sugar. And yet, so many of our foods have far more sugar than good taste would suggest they should contain. Obviously, sugar isn’t quite the same as tobacco, and we can’t ban it entirely; but maybe we can bring about a much-needed shift in our culture. It’s demand for sweet foods that fuels businesses’ decision to dump (literally) sickening amounts of sugar into their products — breakfast cereals, snack foods, soft drinks.
I grew accustomed to eating less sugar when I lived in China for five years. Upon returning to the States, I wanted to continue eating foods with less sugar. I still remember how I felt on my first few trips to the grocery after my homecoming. As I pulled products off the shelves to look at the ingredient lists, I was disgusted to see that sugar was in the top three ingredients on just about everything. It was infuriating. There seemed to be no companies who were interested in providing low-sugar products. (And those that were interested only seemed to provide foods that were sickeningly sweetened with artificial alternatives.)
Then I realized the true source of the problem: Consumers tend to choose the foods with the most sugar. The manufacturers are only giving us what we’re asking for. The same was true of smoking. Thus, as with smoking, the impetus for change regarding the amount of sugar in our food will have to come from us — the consumers. Not the government, and not the executives at the food companies.
So I hereby beseech you to join me in demanding that manufacturers produce foods that are lower in sugar.
I actually think that our culture is ripe for a voluntary reduction in sugar. Think about coffee. It’s “cool” to drink coffee black, even though it’s bitter as hell. It’s an acquired taste, and there’s an element of pride in it. The same is true of dark chocolate (though entirely unsweetened cocoa is a frighteningly bitter beast indeed). This sort of trend, combined with people’s growing awareness of the health hazards of high sugar intake, might make a general shift possible.
I could see the same sort of trend happening with soft drinks. In fact, I would like to make a recommendation to Coca Cola: Start marketing an unsweetened line of Coke using the same classic recipe but without 33 grams of sugar in every can. Call it “Coke Pure” instead of Coke Classic. I guarantee you, even if it tastes like charcoal, you’ll see a bunch of hipsters and purists start drinking it and insisting that it tastes better than sweetened soft drinks. Try it. Please.
Anyway, back to cigarettes. Good job, CVS. You’ve given me a spark of hope that maybe we humans actually can avoid destroying ourselves out of sheer greed, stupidity, and intemperance.
We’ve still got a long way to go, though.