June 28, 2002

No smoking leads to insanity

They say that immigrants to this country arrive with hardly any mental illness, but that their children show an alarming increase, and by the third generation there is as much lunacy as the general population. A 1998 study by William A. Vega of the University of Texas, San Antonio, "finds much higher rates of major depression, substance abuse, and other mental disorders in U.S. born Mexican-Americans compared with both recent and long-standing Mexican-American immigrants," according to the September 19, 1998 Science News.

So people go crazier in America than they do in other countries, and studies like this prove that it's got nothing to do with our existing stock being more prone to mental illness. I blame our high mental illness rates on the kind of people who harp the loudest about issues such as high mental illness rates, and you should too.

Generally speaking, the person who is most likely to point out that America gives its recent arrivals mental illness is the kind of person who has a statement to make about American culture or society. Usually the statement is something bad, like America is too fast-paced or too family-destroying or—irony of ironies—too individualistic for the health of the individual. This person is offended that people don't see how bad the things that America makes them do are. He wants to do something about these unhealthy things.

Luckily, most of those who marvel at the low mental illness rates of immigrants either throw their energy into hopeless schemes to end fast food, get back to religion, save marriage, or whatever; or, realizing that the cause isn't going away, they find ways of providing mental health services to more people. The worst effects of this last are the byproducts of too much therapy-driven self-awareness in society: whiner bands like Papa Roach and an oversensitive military for our Afghan friends to call wussy.

But say the pet issue isn't mental health. Say it's smoking. Now we've got the potential to do some damage. The person who takes it upon him- or herself to save everyone from the dangers of smoking is well-funded and gets to play with all the power tools of zealotry without any of the stigma usually attached to extremism. It's no vice in the pursuit of puritanism—that is, in making those who annoy you feel bad about themselves.

And here's where they cause the mental illness. Antismoking efforts utilize all the tools of public health: regulation, propaganda, and intimidation. The general purpose of all antismoking efforts is to give the smoker incentives to quit, almost all of which are negative. They start with raising the price of tobacco, which would be a fairly innocuous application of rational-actor theory if not for the pesky fact that smokers are largely drug addicts and tend toward the lower part of the income scale. This means that many people and their families go without other goods so they can afford to continue smoking, and this denies them some of their already scant power in the marketplace.

Given that this population is already disempowered by this high maintenance cost, how much good can it do their psyches to be bombarded with the antismoking crowd's messages of repentance? The only purpose of the average antismoking ad is to scare or guilt its audience into believing the idea that smoking is a sin. It's not merely filthy or dangerous, they say; it's so irredeemable as to be evil. All that ad does is to make you associate smoking with iniquity and thereby feel like a reprobate any time you smoke or contemplate smoking. Since even successful quitters still have regular urges to smoke, this means that a successful antismoking ad produces bad feelings and low self-esteem for a lifetime.

So, to the first-, second-, or third-generation immigrant's breakdown of family, loss of religious faith, and awful effects of discrimination, add a constant beat-down on one of the only pleasures he's got left and a pervasive message that he's a no-good degenerate (who probably kills babies and grandmas with his second-hand smoke). You tell me what his mental health picture is going to look like.

The people who fret over rising mental illness should take a look and despair at their brethren who, under a pretense of fretting over physical illness, use the specter of illness to enforce their self-centered aesthetic judgments, and thereby make us all sick. And all of us—first-, third-, or fifteenth-generation Americans—should question the motives of anyone who has an earnest point to make about our own well-being.