The Ants Go Marching Two by Two by Danielle Zolondek

So I’m watching this documentary on ants and their efficient colonization, security, and transportation systems. It got my mind wandering (it was a documentary on ants) and I started to think about ways to make our system more efficient. It’s hard not to compare our society to flocks of sheep; directed by fear, just trying to stay alive and unscathed. Ants on the other hand, have deliberate organization. They have near constant communication, as they pass in and out of the den and signal to one another what is needed to keep things running smoothly. They meet each other’s needs for the good of the colony, fearlessly and purposefully. How could we be more like ants, and less like sheep?

More recently, the government has started to hold individuals more accountable for their decisions like drinking, driving, smoking, and diet by imposing additional taxes and fines for these products and services. One of the reasons they have expressed, for instance with tobacco, is that the additional taxes collected can be used toward the healthcare system. The proponents of such a measure suggest that this covers the shared cost that is harder to bare when people make individual decisions like smoking. The logic being: Healthy people shouldn’t pay the same amount in taxes as people who make bad health decisions because they aren’t the ones burdening the system. At first glance, this seems reasonable. Taxes can be viewed as healthcare premiums and like insurance, you pay based on your individual health and choices. However this places a heavy financial strain unequally on people who are adhering to the laws that govern us equally. This instead punishes folks like me, who smoke. We are penalized for our diets when paying tax on “non-grocery” food items and there is now talk of increasing this “burden of cost” specifically for people who buy sugary drinks, and junk food. Just like sheep, we are threatened.

In Canada, where I live, we have publicly funded health care. However, why should taxpayers have to shoulder the burden when corporations that produce addictive products hook people and make a killing off it in profits? Corporations, the government approved dealers, should shoulder the blame, not the people they hooked. Morally judging those who use the products is wrong. People like me already pay with inevitable health problems and stigma because we are addicted to something condemned by others. I didn’t become a smoker in a vacuum. As George Costanza said, “We live in a society!” Society impacts all of us and our individual choices.

In my opinion, because the use of addictive substances, such as cigarettes, is legal and available, people should not be unduly limited from access to them by means of high taxes. It is over $17 for a pack of 25 mid-price cigarettes at 7-11. To buy three packs a week, that’s over $204 per month. For someone on minimum wage in my province, that’s nearly 25% of their biweekly earnings – before deductions! If that’s not stressful enough, public smoking bans minimize options for people who smoke; who then must choose between socializing or frequent nicotine withdrawal, even at work. This also displaces individuals with physical disabilities, especially during harsh winters such as those where I live. I’m not saying we should expose non-smokers to second-hand smoke; I’m suggesting that accommodations for safe, ventilated areas for people who smoke while in public should be required, so that everybody’s needs are being met.

I propose that instead of placing private citizens in a situation where they’re given a “free choice” of legal products, yet are penalized for choosing certain ones based on the premise that the products cause public harm; we should place the responsibility of causing public harm on the companies that make a profit from these options (tobacco, alcohol, junk food, etc.). Their profits are so high that I believe they could stand to put one percent of their profits each fiscal year toward the healthcare system directly; equitably distributed among the provinces and states as based on population size and need. I think that a big corporation can handle such a “loss.” We need to think of more ways to curtail the industry and not punish the customers whom they prey upon.

On the surface, the healthiest solution may seem to be a prohibition of cigarettes, but that won’t help as it creates black markets just as prohibition of alcohol did. In addition, it still involves fear based “direction” in neglect of our free will. We in Canada have done an excellent job creating legislation to discourage smoking among youth, which has lead largely to the the smoking trend being snuffed out. With fewer people smoking, there should be less of a strain on the system. These taxes and by-laws are causing unnecessary stress on people that aren’t breaking any laws. The corporations who manufacture and distribute these products should pay for the health problems they are proven to cause, just as carbon tax is supposed to pay for environmental problems caused by the use of carbon. It stands to reason that our government should create initiatives to reduce the financial strain on our system, and at the same time help those whose health is impacted by these products. Life should not be made harder or more stressful on a group of people simply because they smoke or partake in a soda. Stress on part of the system stresses out the whole system.

Because I smoke I am judged fairly harshly by friends. I am frustrated that it was sold to me as “cool” when I was a teen, and now I’m the last of my friends still addicted. I am both financially and socially punished. It’s also upsetting that this has created an industry of smoking cessation products from which, more often than not, corporations make a large profit; even though they are generally ineffective. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances and the hardest to quit, but the only way to quit any drug is to cease taking it.

I will quit. I’m in my thirties now and have “quit” more times in the last 12 months than I had in the previous 22 years. The stakes are higher now. I have children and find myself winded with minimal effort. I live in constant fear that I will get cancer. The mood swings when I can’t feed the addiction are horrible. Being a smoker is a personal prison with a life sentence. Life is already harder for us without being punished by our own government for it.

The fact is the more poor and more stressed out a person is, the more likely they are to use these products. It is our capitalist society that creates this kind of stress on people—thus it is a social problem. Blaming individuals and holding them solely responsible is wrong. Folks being ostracized and shamed is wrong. The taxes on these products are called “sin taxes.” They are punishing people who use products our society has deemed “bad.” Even if the products are bad, shouldn’t the choice to use them be left to the individual? Whatever happened to personal freedom to choose, self-determination, or autonomy, the greatest claims of capitalism? In addition, raising the price of something addictive does not stop people from buying it. It forces people to spend more to keep from going into withdrawal and just takes away money from other things they need. So in effect it is a punishment. Taxes like these are regressive, not progressive.

In Canada temperatures can plunge to -50 Fahrenheit and beyond in the Winter. People are legislated to smoke at least 25 meters away from public entrances and they have just passed legislation preventing smoking on public patios, many of which were created to accommodate smokers who lost their smoking section. Now the space for smokers on patios has been eliminated too. There are starting to be no spaces left for us. We fund safe injection sites for opiate addicts, shouldn’t we be able to provide safe, ventilated smoking areas, so nobody is getting second-hand smoke, yet people can still smoke without freezing? We can see a need. How can we meet it with the whole colony in mind?

We should continue to invest in prevention and education so that people do not start using these substances. But in the end, a socialist society would go a long way into curbing the need for these kinds of coping methods all together. Shouldn’t we work towards building a society that reduces stress on everyone instead of punishing the victim? I think so. We need to take a lesson from the ants, and organize society so it makes sense for everyone and not just the rich few.


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