Contemplating Better Public Health: Perspective is Everything
Cigarette smoking remains among the most significant and pernicious global public health challenges. On World No Tobacco Day it’s time to consider re-designing our approach to public health and tobacco control in the hopes of meeting this challenge and others like it more effectively.
Today is World No Tobacco Day and offers us an opportunity to take a pause and think about the ways in which we approach tobacco control as an example for public health.
Marketing funnyman Rory Sutherland, and smoker, makes a terrific observation about smoking and its power to promote quiet contemplation in one of his recent TED talks (which is well worth watching for many reasons, only some related to tobacco use):
“Ever since they banned smoking in the UK in public places I’ve never enjoyed a drinks party ever again. The reason… is when you go to a drinks party and you hold up a glass of red wine and you stand up and talk endlessly to people sometimes you don’t actually want to spend the whole time talking. It’s really, really tiring. Sometimes you just want to stand their silently, alone with your thoughts. Sometimes you just want to stand in the corner and stare out of the window.
Now the problem is now that you can’t smoke, if you stand there and stare out of the window on your own you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot.
If you stand there and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a fucking philosopher.”
In this tongue-in-cheek presentation, Sutherland inadvertently hits on a powerful reason to smoke, but not for the reason you might first imagine. It is less about social perspective, but internal perspectives of the self and the opportunity to better acquaint oneself with them.
Sutherland speaks to the perception of others in this talk, but I am more interested in what this act of contemplation — the ‘fucking philosopher’ aspect of smoking for some and why public health sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to tobacco control, but could get it right with mental health with the right design.
Over the past year I’ve made a concerted effort to better understand the motivations and habits of cigarette smokers from the perspective of a designer, not a public health researcher. In doing so I have sought to pay greater attention — as Rory Sutherland does — to the actual experience of smoking. And what I have noticed is the powerful contemplative effect it has on many smokers.
By no means is this a by product of cigarettes, and I certainly cannot endorse their use on health grounds, but one positive by-product of the act of smoking is greater attention to the self in the moment. Sutherland speaks to how a cigarette gives him the license to take time out of a busy party and contemplate, reflect, and gain some perspective that might seem odd or “antisocial” without the prop created by a cigarette.
Strange that we seem unable to develop the same habits and social acceptance of everyday contemplative acts in public, yet fully recognize this as legitmate with smokers even if we question the device used to precipitate the “time out”.
Smokers take breaks throughout the day to engage their cigarettes. Even in cold weather, they will go outside and sit or stand for 10 minutes just to indulge their habit, compulsion or pleasure, sometimes in small groups. This act of smoking provides a sense of community (with other smokers), contemplative space, and a pause from the everyday rush of life. Indeed, as they engage in activities that threaten their physical health they also engage in an activity that is very healthy for their mental well-being.
This is potentially another area that requires further investigation both from a positive standpoint (designing healthy space for contemplative inquiry or reflection) and looking at negative impacts of our well-intentioned efforts to curb tobacco use. While the loss of potential smoking peers has been examined, I could not find any research that examines the loss of contemplative time and its impact on smokers who quit. Doing so firstly acknowledges that cigarette use has benefits, which is problematic for many in public health. It also means getting into a zone of complexity whereby we need to consider how something that is so demonstrably toxic to the human body and others around the smoker can have potentially positive effects in other ways.
From a design perspective, how might we apply the lessons from cigarette use to mental health promotion? How might we design programs, spaces, places, and social conventions that promote the quiet contemplative acts that smokers gain from taking that cigarette break and offer potentially great value to tobacco users without creating harmful effects for others? How can we promote the quitting of smoking without the loss of the contemplative benefits that come with the act of lighting up?
Engaging design, complexity and imagining the systems that influence them both might yield considerable insight into how we manage other public health problems and how we might better promote mental health in the protection of physical well-being.