In defense of tobacco

Opinion by Renjie Wong
Oct. 20, 2013, 5:07 p.m.

In our October 4 issue, The Daily published an opinions piece arguing that Stanford — the healthy, glowing bubble of super grains, carrot sticks and organic low-calorie farm-to-table vodkas — ran afoul of the Santa Clara Public Health Department. For being the only university in the county to allow the sale of tobacco products on campus, the Farm received an F.

That’s right, the Farm receiving a big fat flaming F. F for Fumes. Or Fuming Mad, as it were, given the disgruntled reactions of many an incredulous Weekender reader, who felt that surely an institution of Stanford’s academic stature would be familiar enough with the dangers of tobacco to disallow the sale of such toxic substances on its hallowed grounds.

Indeed, out here on the West Coast, we have come to view tobacco as the spawn of the devil. Maybe it’s the health-freak streak that has been bred into our blood, or maybe it’s the rebelliously alternative strain that we inherited from our hippie forebears, but it has become our second nature to decry the cigarette in favor of other (purportedly healthier) narcotics like marijuana. In hip-hop queen Kelis’ words, “it’s the bitch we all love to hate”; in other words, it’s the Gwyneth Paltrow of the Recreational Drug World.

But does smoking really deserve to be kicked in its cigarette butt?

Sure, it does have a ton of awful chemicals that companies throw in to get you addicted. And the smoke and mirrors put up to market tobacco as trendy and upbeat are supremely manipulative. And you are statistically more likely to die a slow, painful death at an earlier age than if you didn’t indulge in it.

But if it feels like you’ve heard this all before, it’s because you have. See also: 6 pc. Chicken McNuggets.

Smoking seems to have been inordinately demonized in contemporary Californian culture, and in the cosmic toss-up that includes such noxious substances as fast food, alcohol and that 16-ounce can of Monster, we have somehow decided that tobacco provides the poorest pleasure-to-pain ratio.

I’m not saying that it’s good for you, or that it isn’t that bad for you or any other line of doomed argument. I’m not even going to take the whole smoking-reduces-your-risk-of-Parkinson’s approach (because, let’s be real, obviously lying six feet under is going to significantly decrease your risk of wobbly hands).

And while I could argue that, as in many other cultures around the world, tobacco has a very significant social and ritual function amongst its partakers, I’ll take the angle most befitting of this column — that of the Epicurean.

Because, behind all the huffing and puffing over the medical implications of smoking, there is something to be said for the appreciation of tobacco’s remarkably complex flavors. Society may have decided that it provides the least gratification vis-à-vis its health detriments, but it’d prove truly naïve to entirely ignore what enjoyment it can give us.

Cigarettes — by far the most common and condemned of tobacco products — were a Flapper Girl favourite, after all, partially because it allowed her previously repressed self to fully claim her belle garçonne identity, but mostly because its toasted, earthy flavor could be enjoyed at any time of the day, and (in those days) anywhere she went. A Roaring Twenties chewing gum, if you will. And as choking as second-hand cigarette smoke is, in an ingenious sybaritic sleight of hand, the smoker somehow tastes none of its gag-inducing qualities.

And then there are the cigars. Like a finely aged Sauternes wine or a carefully matured Époisses de Bourgogne cheese, a cigar presents a rich interplay of complex flavors, the glimmering ring of fire producing an hours-long dégustation. From nutty and creamy to hints of chocolate and coffee, it does not take a pretentious connoisseur to be able to savor a delicious cigar. Its reliably luxurious depth, in fact, makes it the perfect postprandial accompaniment to a peaty Scotch whisky, a cognac or a syrupy dark rum.

Granted, the most prestigious cigars are incredibly difficult to procure in America due to their Cuban provenance — someone I know once arranged to purchase a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 cigar in a shady Palo Alto back alley, crack-deal style. But Guatemalan, Puerto Rican and Honduran cigars are equally exquisite, and most certainly worth the effort of tracking down. After all, “a good cigar,” as Liszt once famously said, “closes the door to the vulgarities of the world.” And what do generations of Stanford’s music students have to thank for Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, if not for the fact that tobacco was tasty enough for Christopher Columbus to bring it back with him to Europe?

So here we are, stranded at the not-unfamiliar crossroads between a prudent rock and an indulgent hard place. Which road should you take, you ask?

For me, you see, the answer to that question is clear: As a non-smoker, I often take a stance against tobacco that is cemented by our unfamiliarity with its flavors. But perhaps it would be more productive to give credit where credit is due, acknowledge the gustatory motivations for smoking and withhold from vilifying a drug that is only as morally objectionable as Ronald McDonald’s tasty treats.

Or — as they say — take a chill pill, and pass the peace pipe.

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