Does Smoke-Free Living Hurt Civility?

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Tobacco isn't healthy—but by promoting sociability and friendship it very well might promote a healthy democracy

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The Newark Star-Ledger reports a small boom in suburban hookah lounges. The health advantages of water pipes over cigarettes may be doubtful, but the hookah does highlight a sometimes neglected positive side of the smoking habit, sociability. One parlor owner is quoted as saying:

Smoking a hookah is a centuries-old tradition that began in India and in ancient Persia, Patel said. Throughout history, smoking a hookah exemplified bonding and mutual understanding.

According to legend, a political crisis erupted in the 1840s between the Ottoman Empire and France as a result of the Sultan's refusal to offer the French ambassador the opportunity to smoke with him. It was extremely insulting and politically incorrect.

(There is some evidence I've found, though no bulletproof source, that the episode really happened in 1841.)

I don't smoke, hate second-hand smoke, was tormented while living in Washington by smoke from an adjacent apartment, and accept the overwhelming medical case against even casual water-pipe smoking. Still, I'm just short of a third cheer for the anti-smoking movement I support. I wonder whether there is a hidden cost to our healthier lifestyles, especially in giving up tobacco's role as a political and social lubricant. The London Daily Mail, citing a piece by Juli Weiner in Vanity Fair, has raised the question of whether President Obama's apparent victory over his smoking habit had the unintended consequence of impairing his negotiating skills. The smokeless gun: a pack of Nicorettes visible in the Oval Office desk drawer in an official White House photo,

to counter withdrawal symptoms that would leave him feeling short tempered and easily angered.

Doctors have also said ex-smokers are known to experience 'feelings of being an infant: temper tantrums, intense needs, feelings of dependency and a state of near paralysis'.

By contrast House Speaker John Boehner, who has no interest in stubbing out his habit, has appeared far calmer and more focused - in part due to his smoking.

With a deal finally signed Mr. Obama walked out into the Rose Garden looking visibly relaxed, as if a huge weight had been taken off his mind.

In the previous weeks he had lost his temper during the negotiations with the Republicans and on one occasion closed a meeting early and stormed out.

'I have reached the point where I say enough.' he reportedly said.

Of course there's much more to the deadlock than that, among other things the intensity of partisan sentiments. And there were plenty of threats and actual fights in the spittoon-era Congress preceding the Civil War, so there are limits to the peace-pipe theory of tobacco.

More recently, smoking has been enshrined in Western political architecture. Among the wonderful spaces I visited in the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa a few years ago was the Commonwealth Room, originally the House Smoking Room. The official description will give you the idea, water pipe and all:

The marble fireplace is surmounted by an over-mirror framed with delicate mouldings and capped with a superb cartouche ornament in which two satyrs display a Turkish pipe, or hookah, in the middle of a wreath of packed fruits and leaves. The whole design is crowned with an anthemion, formed in this instance by tobacco leaves. This smoking-room theme is closely tied in with the modelled frieze of the ceiling, which displays boxes of cigars alternating with tobacco leaves.

I started to imagine an old boys' club of yore that may have had many flaws, but was at least convivial and congenial. There's evidence that smokers are more so than other people. When it comes to smoking, conventional good guy and bad guy roles in politics are often reversed. Franklin Roosevelt's trademark was his cigarette holder, and at the FDR Museum in Hyde Park, New York, I have seen a pre-lit cigarette dispenser invented for the president's hand-operated private car by an estate mechanic. On the other hand, the Quaker-raised Richard Nixon signed legislation banning television tobacco advertising.

Anti-smoking is only part of a set of broader social changes brought about by greater speed of information interchange -- e.g. blogging itself -- that removed the positive, buffering effects of inefficiency. The popularity of strong coffee, which I also share, is part of the trend. As former House historian Raymond W. Smock told The Washington Post with dismay on the abolition of the Page program:

"If you have to be civil to the pages and if you have to treat them decently," then members feel more inclined to be civil to each other.

Smoking shortens lives, and is wasteful, but its rituals also may have helped smooth tense moments. Maybe perpetual alertness to new messages and rapid information exchange have their downside. America was founded by formidable drinkers who managed to defeat the world's greatest army and draft its most influential political documents. Cigars and martinis won't engender political genius, but we do need something that will encourage chilling out.

Image: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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