The Power Stations at Obilic, Kosovo.There are times, here in Kosovo, where it can be nice to be reminded of home. I will confess that I derive a comical and inordinate amount of satisfaction from the tiny Petro-Canada logo at the corner of a billboard near Qafa. I get a kick out of seeing a small boy rocking a Montreal Expos cap in the traditional red, white, and blue. But sometimes it’s not quite so warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it’s annoying as hell.

On April 4, Kosovo – in keeping with modern norms and prejudices – adopted a series of anti-smoking laws that prevent people from smoking in cafés, bars, and “public areas”. As has been the case in Canada (or at least my part of Canada) since 2008, dépanneurs (or, “corner stores,” for those not from my part of Canada) must conceal their racks of cigarettes and tobacco products beneath a blank expanse of cardboard. This has the double effect of preventing, in a Victorian-ladies-covering-table-legs fashion, the seduction of the innocent by entities such as Joe Camel, as well as the potential recognition that these products are not being sold out of mere sadism, but rather to satisfy demand.

Smoking is a vice, and as such it is dangerous. This should almost go without saying. Smoking belongs to that category of human behaviors that begins with staying up past your bedtime and ends with Aztec sacrifice-parties. It goes against the desire to sustain oneself and dips its toe into some dark and chilly waters, exciting the nerves. It has a little death in it.

"YOLO."

“YOLO.”

We have always known this. One of the great conceits of the modern world is that we are only now escaping from a long period of benightedness and ignorance, and that an enormous number of ancient folkways must be overturned in light of our new knowledge. It’s a revolutionary idea, of course, and it comes from revolutionary times – from 18th-century France, to be specific. It’s an exciting, emboldening concept whose only drawback is that it prevents us from deriving any custom or confidence from our past. According to this idea, it’s always a bright new day; the perfect time to cast off shackles and reverse course. This is how modern people, as well as goldfish, live their lives.

Photo Credit: Angie Hu, Flickr.com

“The personal is political!”

In 1575, in Mexico, the Catholic Church banned smoking in places of worship across the realm. In 1612, Chinese authorities banned the cultivation and use of tobacco products by Royal decree. Five years later, in Mongolia, the Khanate introduced the death penalty for smoking. In 1633, Turkish Sultan Murad IV found himself executing up to 18 people per day for this particular crime.

These were not anomalies. The 17th century saw the introduction of broad and heavy-handed smoking bans in Switzerland, Bhutan, Connecticut, England, and Russia. In 1904, before Mike Bloomberg was even born, A New York woman was sentenced to one month in jail for smoking in front of her children. In the 1930s, Nazi Germany gave us the term “passive smoking,” which is still a favorite of those championing the current round of laws.

Flying in the face of the “everyone thought it was great but now we know better” narrative, these laws predate the many studies that have linked tobacco smoking to lung cancer, hypertension, emphysema, and heart disease. Many of them predate the scientific method itself. So why did they exist?

We all know what vices look like. We have always been able to tell the (placid, complacent) pleasures that derive from self-upkeep from the (spiky, subversive) ones which do not. We have always known what it looks like to enjoy a little death, and it seems like both the desire to do so and the desire to prevent people from doing so are essential and deep-rooted aspects of our nature.

There are aspects of the current legal situation that I do not find unpleasant. It is nice, for instance, to return home from a few rounds at the pub and not smell like Tom Waits’ curtains. It is perhaps acceptable for abstaining café employees to be able to maintain both their health and their employment. There is no doubt that part of the current anti-smoking craze derives from real issues of personal well-being and public salubrity.

There is also no doubt, at least in my mind, that it contains a sizeable measure of good old-fashioned moralism as well.

Witness, for example, the furor that surrounds the “e-cigarette”: a device which allows smokers to enjoy their particular vice without inhaling or exhaling any actual smoke. In France, Health Minister Marisol Touraine has confirmed her intention to ban the public use of these devices, citing things like “the example it sets for children.” In California, officials have cited unnamed authorities who “share concerns” that the water vapors emitted by these devices “may” be harmful in a similar manner to second-hand smoke, even though a 2009 FDA study concluded that this is definitively not the case.

Taboos and customs change more rapidly and more dramatically than do our bodies. In places, for instance, where smoking has become socially undesirable, I notice that many people seem willing to insist that they suffer from unique and powerful conditions which cause cigarette smoke to cause more bother to them than it presumably does for the rest of us. In Toronto and San Francisco (two of the most self-consciously “modern” of modern cities), people cough ostentatiously and claim mysterious allergies. In Belgrade and Pristina (and even Vienna or Paris), where smokers have not yet attained the public status of plague carriers, such terrible ailments are visibly rarer. In the Toronto of 1985, my own mother smoked widely, regularly, and without being reduced to an object of pity and scorn.

"Wide-open town, baby."

“Wide-open town, baby.”

Perhaps evolution has, in accordance with recent public health studies, decided to accelerate from its usual glacial pace, causing rapid, conveniently-timed mutations to arise in the space of decades. Perhaps an oppressed majority have been suffering in silence for much of the 20th century, and only now have been (to use another great modern trope) “given a voice.”

Or perhaps we just enjoy and derive status from enforcing taboos.

"It's really for the children, more than anything."

“Think of the children.”

There is something anarchic and unstable about vice. In Europe and North America, vast numbers of people live without any sense that there may be an “afterlife”; without any suspicion that the consciousness within us may be part of something greater than the momentary flicker of our individual lives. In such an environment, it is perhaps inevitable that the public ethos will disproportionately favor the prolonging of life, conflating good health with goodness itself.

Even in the past, though, where the endless, haunted twilight of traditional life promised angels and devils and eternity to all, we still perceived something malignant about smoking, and about the general sub-grouping of human pleasures to which it belongs. For rulers, would-be rulers, and those who prioritize the stability of self-upkeep over the raw, jagged thrills of vice, there is something about the smoking of tobacco that has always seemed dangerously disordered. Once we admit that people desire something other than (to borrow a phrase from a particularly utopian modern fiction) to “live long and prosper”, a vast, dark gulf opens up beneath the foundations of our self-understanding, and threatens to swallow us whole.

"So is this, like... someone's birthday?"

“So is this, like… someone’s birthday?”

Kosovo wants nothing more than to be modern. At the center of her capital, a towering sign informs both locals and visitors that this country is “Newborn.” In the place of the strange and ancient double-headed eagle that adorns the Albanian flag, Kosovo’s Albanians have chosen, for their own banner, a vague, EU-aspiring combination of a map and some stars. A state-funded promotional campaign has branded the inhabitants of this old and fractious land as “The Young Europeans.” So it’s not surprising that the smoking taboo, which is strongest at modernity’s enervated frontlines and weakest where traditional life still reigns, has come at last to these shores.

At the moment, people in Pristina seem to be greeting the new circumstance with a mixture of frustration and resignation. It’s not the first time that a foreign taboo has been imposed on this land, and it won’t be the last. Additionally, as noted above, it can – in certain cafés and restaurants – be something of a relief.

Just over the hill from Pristina, however, the twin power stations of Obilić continue to belch out fumes toxic enough to remain responsible for 63% of this country’s infant fatalities, and a huge contingent of ancient Mercedes diesels still force you to (essentially) smoke two packs of unfiltered Camels every time one changes gear in your vicinity. There is barely any public transport, and everyone drives everywhere. Depleted uranium from the wars of the 1990s contaminates the water supply.

So we’re not exactly healthy. Not yet. But we’re modern. Bar and restaurant owners can be fined thousands of euros if a stray Marlboro is consumed on their premises, and a telephone hotline has been set up to allow anonymous tipsters to voice their complaints.

In the absence of any particular respiratory or personal health benefits, I suppose we will just have to learn to enjoy the new circumstance for the mere taboo that it is.

But we’re good at that. We’ve always been very good at that.

It’s probably the oldest vice of them all.

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