Thank You for Not Smoking

The question that’s batted back and forth in Lee’s post is: “Is second-hand smoke bad for you?” Of course it is. But in this case, the question is: “Is second-hand smoke outside—that is, a single inadvertent half-puff—bad for you?” I don’t think so. It’s not good for you—it doesn’t healthily increase the blood flow to the brain or something like that, but I doubt seriously that it damages anyone. This is a perspective I utilized a couple years ago when I argued the point with one of my publisher’s PR people, who suggested that walking behind a smoker amounted to getting shot with a bullet that would kill her in 30 years.But I’m not here to argue this point, just to connect it to something I noticed in the States—the concern with health. It’s an amazingly contradictory thing. On the one hand, Americans are obsessed with medicines. Turn on the TV, and half the ads are for new drugs to curb your errant body—like the “restless leg syndrome” (recently identified) that apparently keeps millions from getting a good night’s sleep. As soon as I landed, still recovering from my previous week’s illness, mom noticed me blowing my nose and offered her cough medicine—which I took, and which immediately knocked me out. Any time a physical discomfort was brought up, I was pointed to a list of possible prescriptions to make my life easier. My brother, like his friends, has been put on mood-enhancement drugs to curb his teenage angst—and this is the one medical focus that’s never set well with me.

I call this obsession contradictory, because the other side is obvious. My family lives in a small Texas town where they drive everywhere, getting no exercise within their daily routines, and most of their diet comes from prepackaged foods in plastic bags. Since I cook every day in Budapest, from fresh ingredients, this change in diet was particularly rough for my insides (though I’m sure I could’ve taken a drug for that).

Mom, who’s a sociology professor, got me into her school’s online film library where I watched a piece on American obesity, and how lower-income Americans are at the highest risk. I can’t remember all the stats, but one social worker pointed out that if you walk into McDonalds with a five-dollar bill, you can get 5 hamburgers, or 1 salad. With a family to feed, which are you going to choose?

Even in more sophisticated restaurants, I found myself eating something I haven’t had in a long time—battered, deep-fried seafoods and meats. At other tables, fat middle-class Texans gobbled down the same stuff with relish. Luckily, there’s plenty of heartburn medicine available from the pharmacy.

I’m not telling anyone from the States or Canada, or even the UK, anything new. I’m just pointing out that when you’ve lived outside for a while, all this strikes you as slightly surreal. It seems that everyone you meet is on some drug or another, yet they seem no more healthy—and usually less healthy—than people you run into in Hungary.

Yet when I light a cigarette, there’s an instinctive arched brow from everyone, a pause in the conversation, and the conviction that I’m dragging myself to the grave. That’s true, yes…and yes, I will quit. But there’s more to health than just the lungs.