Smoking and the poor

Fewer adults smoke than ever — fifteen percent, according to polls. In a stark example of the income gap, the poor smoke more than the rich. “Cigarette companies are focusing their marketing on lower socioeconomic communities to retain their customer base,” writes William Wan in today’s Washington Post.

Debbie Seals, 60, has fought on the front lines of this new class battle for the past six years from her home in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

She has driven her tiny blue Fiat to the farthest corners of southern Virginia and West Virginia to hold classes aimed at helping smokers quit. Her cessation clinics are often the only ones offered for miles around.

“It’s like there’s two worlds now,” Seals said.

Every month, she travels to Northern Virginia to visit her grandchildren in the D.C. suburbs. In Alexandria, she sees couples jogging on the streets and buying expensive organic groceries at Whole Foods – and not a single one smoking.

But in her home town of Martinsville, Va., cigarettes are ubiquitous. People smoke on their morning drive to work and on weekends mowing their lawns. Tobacco stores line the strip malls.

Friends know I smoke. Many friends will bum cigarettes, but that’s the catch — one cigarette during or after drinking, the latter as a nightcap. Because I don’t have what analysts call an addictive personality, I smoke one a day after dinner when my throat is lubricated with wine; it’s impossible for me to smoke sober. But I’m confident I can eliminate smoking entirely. Social pressure to conform exerts itself. In 2011, my university became a “clean air campus,” banning smoking from its campuses (we do sell soft drinks; our intolerance for poisons has limits). Few friends chain smoke, therefore temptations are few.

Drive through rural Florida, however, and the differences are stark: cigarette ads on bus stops and billboards. Smoking also remains high among Cuban emigres. “For many years there was nothing to do except wait in lines,” the sixty-seven-year-old neighbor a floor up told me a couple years ago. An affordable vice if you can spare three bucks in Florida for a pack of Broncos. That’s the other problem: with Marlboros at $12 the last time I bought a pack in Chicago, the city becomes forbidden to the working poor.

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