Sunday, March 21, 2010

Smoking vs. Drinking: An Eternal and Relevant Debate

I weighed myself at the gym today, and was astonished to find that after a week of gluttony in Egypt, I still checked in at a healthy 82.5 kilograms (roughly 181 pounds, for those of you counting at home). Despite the fact that I never consciously exercised and stuffed my face at every meal, I actually lost 3.5 kilos in Egypt. When I tried to come up with some reasons for why this happened, I could only find three possible ones:

a) I exercised subconsciously because I had to walk around tourist sites like the Pyramids, Coptic Cairo, Alexandria, every museum, etc.; and because I spent a decent amount of time playing in or relaxing around the hotel pool.
b) My irregular and small amounts of sleep (I napped when I could on the tour bus, but most nights I got 3-5 hours of sleep, tops) took a toll on my body and being awake for four extra hours every day burned more calories than normal.
c) I smoked myself thin.

Let me explain: in Cairo, we smoked argeela at least once a day, either at a restaurant or from a hookah set up on our hotel balcony [Footnote: Or the one disastrous time we tried to smoke indoors because we liked being in the relatively cooler air-conditioned hotel room. Luke dropped a hot coal on his bare arm and my bed, leaving a heart-shaped burn on his forearm and a hole through all of my sheets. To extinguish the coal, I emptied my Nalgene onto it, which completely soaked my bed through. I had to sleep on borrowed sheets and more crucially, I woke up without any water to quench the morning thirst that comes from sweating underneath the sheets in a Cairo hotel. Good times.]. On the second night, we even smoked a giant argeela whose name I forget but which I promptly christened “King Kong” because the hookah we smoked it from stood about four feet off the ground and had an eight-foot hose as thick as my forearm wrapped with a snakeskin cover. Apparently this kind of argeela comes from the Gulf, which is like the Texas of the Arab world because not only is it rich in oil, but everything’s bigger there. King Kong tasted OK at first, but as the night went on it kind of soured on me and I stopped smoking. Also, I smoked a few cigarettes in Cairo just because it’s insulting to refuse a cigarette offered to you by an Arab man, especially someone you do business with. So, for example, when I bought my second hookah with the help of A’del, I celebrated by smoking a cigarette with him.

Anyway, the point is that we smoked a lot in Cairo, and I actually feel healthier now than when I left. I ran 5K on the treadmill two days in a row and clocked some pretty respectable times (though this may have something to do with coming back to Amman air, which is relatively cleaner compared to Cairo smog. Going to Cairo may have been the equivalent of spending a week at altitude). I’m not about to trade in my Coors Light for a pack of Marlboros, but I think my experience in Egypt does bring up some interesting questions. For example, in the United States alcohol is relatively cheap and is seen as a socially acceptable vice, but cigarettes are extremely expensive and smokers are ostracized—just look at the dwindling number of places you can light up. In Egypt, it’s the exact opposite: alcohol is expensive and getting drunk is haram, but cigarettes are less than $1/pack and smoking a pack a day is par for the course.

I question whether either country has the right balance of “sin taxes.” In Egypt, nobody disputes that cigarettes are dangerous for you and for others. The packs have giant and un-subtle warning labels [Footnote: We translated one warning label which stated bluntly, “Smoking cigarettes will affect your married life.” Underneath that, there was a giant picture of a drooping cigarette.], but the prices are just so cheap that nobody cares. Of course, this may be a chicken/egg problem: are cigarettes cheap because people demand that they be cheap, or do people smoke because prices are low? There’s also the third variable of social pressure—since alcohol is haram, people who need a vice choose to smoke even though in other circumstances they might prefer to drink, which just magnifies the other effects. All of this (plus the fact that Cairo is constantly covered by a giant cloud of hazy smog) means that lung cancer will be the leading cause of death in Egypt in 30 years, if it isn’t already.

Still, I wonder if the U.S. might be skewed in the other direction. We hate on smokers because they create secondhand smoke, but really, I think America as a whole may have overreacted a little. Smoking is bad, but alcohol has its detrimental effects too—domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies, DUI, binge drinking, and violent crime are just a few of alcohol’s downsides, and the bill for all of these gets passed on to society at large. By making alcohol relatively cheap compared to cigarettes, we just create an “Egypt effect” encouraging people who need a buzz to choose alcohol. This approach may be good if we want to eradicate secondhand smoke, but we shouldn’t deceive ourselves about its other costs. Personally, I think Americans could do with smoking a few more Marlboros and ingesting a lot fewer 40s and/or double bacon cheeseburgers. If just half of the obese people in America could smoke themselves thin like I did, maybe we wouldn’t face the healthcare crisis that we do today; and if half of the criminals sitting in jail right now had smoked a cigarette instead of gotten drunk and committed a crime, maybe our prisons wouldn’t be overcrowded.

This post doesn’t even begin to touch the other topics of illegal drugs, sex, gambling, etc. as outlets for vice; but here’s the thought of the day: if a government encourages balanced consumption of vices, then it will have a balanced palate of problems stemming directly from those vices. If a government favors one vice heavily (i.e. Egypt with smoking or the U.S. with drinking), the problems coming from it will become endemic and spill over into other sectors of society. Sorry to get into debate/PPA stuff, but I got to thinking about why people smoke so much in Egypt and this is what I came up with.

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