See many people smoking these days? Me neither. Aside from "Mad Men" episodes and old movies, I rarely see people light up.
When I do see people with a lit cigarette, I’m almost taken aback now—I’m a little shocked, a little disgusted and cough loudly and purposely.
After all, that’s what we’re supposed to do to smokers—shun them, show them pictures of blackened lungs and give them warnings about their imminent deaths, charge them more, refuse to give them jobs—the list goes on.
We also learned to teach them young, so that we’ll phase out the bad habit in generations.
A couple weeks ago, my 8-year-old nephew saw a smoker while we were out and deadpanned to me, “I feel bad for kids if their parents smoke. Then they have to go to an orphanage and wait until they get new parents.”
Ah, yes. We teach them well.
And apparently, our methods are working: U.S. smokers are lighting up less than ever. Gallup reports the percentage of U.S. heavy smokers has dropped significantly since the late 1970s, and reached an all-time low this year.
Not to be argued with, tobacco control saves both lives and money.
We’ve moved on; we’ve picked our new epidemic. While smoking rates are down, obesity and overweight rates keep climbing. Big Gulps are the new Marlboros. Sugar’s the new tobacco. And it’s a fight that’s gotten overly political: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has banned big, sugary drinks from the city. First Lady Michelle Obama says obesity is one of the “greatest national security threats.”
Education about health is great, but it can only go so far. We’re not all that dumb. We know fast food every day isn’t good for us, just as we know smoking causes lung cancer (along with, of course, dirty looks and the impression that children will be taken away from parents who smoke).
Will employers begin to test BMIs and blood sugar levels for their employees? There are of course some flaws in this logic: Being obese and overweight doesn’t always equate to health problems, for one. Two, it becomes too Big Brother for most of us.
We’ve chosen our health battles. But my big question? What’s next?
After our waistlines have whittled down and "The Biggest Loser" has changed all of America, what’s next on tap? Drinking? Prescription drugs? What about not eating enough? What if the bullying of the bulge has an adverse effect and turns into an epidemic of overexercise and extreme dieting?
Maybe the real question is, what do all these epidemics have in common?
Maybe to note, these problems all deal with overindulgence. They deal with trying to find control, or reduce stress, or find some sort of temporary satisfaction. Maybe the root of the problem is mental illness—the one health problem that hasn’t gotten much attention.
If we stop feeling stressed, upset and depressed, will bad behaviors decrease? I'd argue it would.
The real question is how do we save ourselves from ourselves? That might not be an issue a reality program could solve in one short season.