February 2014

Tobacco-Free CVS: Healthy Policies, or Smoke and Mirrors?

Cigarette smoking is disgusting. Period. That’s why we try to limit ourselves to not more than two packs of Double Happiness per day.


Cigarette smoking has cost us one relationship already – the proverbial one-that-got-away, as it were –  and was a major contributing factor in the demise of another. Aye, there’s only so much good BV pour homme can do when every fiber and each follicle smells like the smokers’ lounge in Narita International Airport. We rue the day – Shanghai, September 2000 – we purchased our first pack of Hongmei.  And were nicotine currently not an essential part of our diet and rigorously-maintained exercise regime and eating disorder, we would very seriously consider thinking about contemplating kicking the habit.

So let us be clear. We loathe our own dependency on the weed. We’re not part of the Smokers’ Rights scene, and we are not apologists for the American (or any other) tobacco industry. We do not take issue with non-smoking ordinances, or the extinction of smoking sections in restaurants — albeit perhaps this is because we started smoking late in life, and commenced courting the tubular carcinogen while living in a country where there are few of the former and just about every section of every restaurant becomes a smoking section if you demand an ashtray. Times may at last be changing for the asthmatic dragon. But when urban skies are clumpy and clotted, and the air tastes of concrete, diesel, and sulfur, and every third metropolite is rocking a face mask (UGGs for the fisog — MUGGs?), igniting our hongshuangxi merely seems stupid, and not suicidal.

Some readers may remember the discussion that flourished in the late 1970s regarding “health as a theoretical concept”, this phrase being the title of a paper of monumental importance in contemporary philosophy of medicine.[i] How best to understand, conceptualize, and define ‘health’ remains speculatively interesting and practically important; and if the modest mountain of papers written on the subject ever threatened to converge upon a single shared conclusion, it was that ‘health’ may be conceptualized in more or less “normative” terms, but, while health is undoubtedly a good thing, who defines ‘health’ – how they define it, and whether they define it in mainly normative or mainly descriptive terms – is not merely one of academia’s more intractable balls of yarn or abstruse Glasperlenspiel. It matters.

And it is a subject to which we will one day return. We will probably use this exact same paragraph (supra) when we do.

Thoughts about health continue to occupy us, and – en passant – we wonder:

How committed really is CVS to health-promotion?

The decision of Rhode Island-based CVS to drop cigarettes and tobacco products will not effect us too much. We are rarely resident in the USA and therefore score our gear from the nearest Kedi or C-Store — two of China’s answers to Seven-Eleven.

But in the interests of integrity, we hope CVS will also yank pipes and pipe cleaners, and any butane or other lighter that is packaged specifically as a “cigarette” lighter.

We hope also they will pull all candy and junk-food from kid-high shelves at the till. If CVS is truly positioning to be a leader in healthcare and health-promotion, this is the appropriate response to concerns of public health experts and others about childhood obesity.

“Ending sales of tobacco, according to Larry Merlo, president and CEO, CVS Caremark CVS +0.62%, was the right move for the chain. ‘Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose’, he said in a statement”.

“Monster” brand energy drink, and other highly-caffeinated beverages, have been cited or implicated as causal factors in some cardiac crisis cases, so those should probably go too — if not for reasons of consistency with their “purpose”, then perhaps with a view to the specter of  liability.

And pajama-jeans. And Snuggies. Please. Those have to go. Selling sofa-slug attire and Nyquil sleep syrup and Doritos and cake frosting cannot be considered advocacy for healthy-living.

So by all means, remove tobacco products. But don’t stop there.

CVS may be right on principle to divest itself of any connections to smoking —  staff in Boots, our preferred High Street chemist back in Blighty, were bemused if not horrified when (new in the UK) we asked them where they kept the fags.  And fair enough, there’s something peculiar about CVS pitching Pall Malls to those who’ve just filled prescriptions for Ventolin inhaler.

But the move will do little to stop cigarette sales, and will provide a shot in the arm for small mom-and-pop corner shops and specialist tobacconists, especially those a short wheezy walk across the CVS parking lot. And then, of course, filling-stations.  Heaven knows nothing could be safer, or more sensible, or better for human health and wellness than selling cigarettes and lighters in the one place where smoking is absolutely, unquestionably, and for very good reason strictly Verboten.

Twenty on pump four, please — and this Bic, a pack of American Spirits yellow, and a six-pack of Stella.  We’re off to CVS for condoms, Red Bull, a box of No-Doze, a box of chocolates, shoe polish, and a birthday card.

Yes. That’s much, much better.

[i] Boorse C, Health as a theoretical concept, Philosophy of Science, 44(1977), 99.542-573. See also Boorse C, On the distinction between disease and illness, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 5 (Fall 1975): 49-68; Englehardt T, Ideology and Etiology, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 1976 vol.1, no.3.

Village Idiots: NYT’s Latest Pro-Chinese Anti-China Drivel

Re: “In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone‘”:

Villagers watching a performance of Yu Opera, Keqiao, Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. Photo by author (2008). (c) MarginalReturns 2014

Is it really to be wondered at if a younger generation of Chinese – if only because they are worried to death about competing for jobs and other opportunities with better-educated (and probably: better-fed) peers from the big cities – are not rabidly enthusiastic about carrying into the future the traditions of the village from which they are trying desperately to escape? And just in case the Chinese government is sometimes doing too little too late to preserve every oddball mico-folkway — well,…so what?

When rural development proceeds too slowly, people complain. Never mind the fact that there’s no way to define or qualify too slowly, except from the point of view of those with specific developmental-outcome expectations. People complain too, of course, when the fazhan juggernaut seems to clip along too quickly — development being too quick only when it seems insufficiently developmental, or when the pace of development seems unsustainable, or when change extends to things that some would prefer unchanged.

China, it seems, can’t get a break.

Allow, though, that there are too few grassroots stewards of China’s various and manifold intangible cultural heritage. Why might that be the case?

One reason is that many rural parents leave their child in the countryside with the grandparents while they strike-out to slave-away for barely a living wage in one of China’s larger cities. When the landscape is calories, the passing-down of some traditions has a way of becoming deprioritised. This has led some observers to bemoan the circumstances that give rise to that situation, and these include: underdevelopment in the outback. Rural underdevelopment then leads to complaints about disparities in education, access to healthcare, access to the internet, etc., between rural children and urban children.  And every now and then one hears or reads of  worries about the consequences of children being raised by semi-literate, geriatric, superstitious, and sometimes downright rascally yokels. Not everyone in the countryside, after all, is a treasure-trove of lore, wisdom, and tradition.

UNESCO most of the time seems positively chuffed about China’s interest in ethno-arcana. But if the local folkways were creepy, mired in a local subculture’s ugly past, or happen not to be photogenic or a good platforms for tourism initiatives, then people would complain about the consequences to Chinese society (and humanity generally) of a retrograde demi-demographic passing-on to a new generation the rot from antiquity.

Again, China can’t win.

Mr Johnson’s article was not an unenjoyable read; but as usual with The New York Times, it is not free from the tincture of that kind of editorial craftsmanship that is roughly the same hue as propaganda, and is very characteristic of Times China-reporting: the government is evil, one-dimensional, and myopic; the people are fascinating, wonderful, and victims of their government. For example, Mr Johnson states that

Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history.

We disagree. If Chinese culture (which aspect of Chinese culture, exactly?) has a “bedrock” (and we’re not sure it really makes sense to say that it has one), it is the family. Families are what make villages “villages”. And while a village might be home to a few families who maintain some traditional art form, or some craft local to some village, the art form or the craft is the preserve of the families — or more accurately: of some families, special or arbitrary connections with the  borders of the village notwithstanding. Upturning, overturning, or gentrifying the Chinese countryside is unlikely to have zero effect on either the maintenance or the transmission of some customs, traditions, and folkways; but the death of the village should not mortify a tradition any more than it would mortify a family. Mr Johnson, therefore, has regrettably overstated the situation.

Chenggang Village, Dinghai City, Zhoushan, Zhejiang. Photo by author (2006). (c) MarginalReturns

Chenggang Village, Dinghai City, Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province. Photo by author (2006).                      (c) MarginalReturns 2014

Urban and rural family units – in China and elsewhere, and perhaps especially in the developing-world – face very different kinds of difficulties, even as these appear against a backdrop of broadly similar challenges. There’s no denying that the dynamics of both kinds of families are changing. But if some rural residents are sometimes the repositories of (among other things) some kinds of unique, hyperlocal traditions, then surely it is for them to decide whether or not to make it a priority for younger family members to be schooled in those traditions. (We believe the apposite word here is ‘autonomy’.) Remember, too, that in some cases these traditions would take years to learn, and a lifetime to master.

The opportunity costs of making time for the proper preservation of some of these arts, crafts, and traditions (and perhaps the word ‘traditions’ does not properly belong in this mix) are generally too great for the hardscrabble Chinese peasant-turned-itinerant labourer; and while we’re not calling for a new smashing of “the four olds”, we do not feel he same sense of either tragedy or emergency that Mr Johnson seems to feel.

As to why there is often insufficient time (or interest) for grassroots, organic preservation of at least some folkways, Mr Johnson – like the rest of us – knows the answer:

The universal allures of modern life — computers, movies, television — have siphoned young people away from traditional pursuits. But the physical fabric of the performers’ lives has also been destroyed.

Assuming that all traditions and cultural folkways have some sort of intrinsic value,*  public support for and assistance with preservation efforts might be very welcomed, on principle alone. But it is worth pausing for a moment to consider that were Beijing to insist that village children must and will learn their local folkways, and that some of those children must and will become masters of them (for the sake of Chinese culture; for the sake of human world heritage), The New York Times would lead the chorus of hue and cry. Development is a zero-sum game.

And as for the “physical fabric” of performers’ lives being “destroyed”, that’s pure, mischievous poppycock.** But there had to be a way to blame the government for something — otherwise, the entire point of Mr Johnson’s article is: China’s rural young would rather play Xbox and waste time on Weixin than learn how to sing in a pitch that sounds like a cat being strangled.

Mr Johnson concludes by referencing the mystery golf course, construction of which was at one point cited as the reason for the displacement/relocation of the villagers and/or the demise of the village:

Strangely, however, the golf course has never been built, and the village still lies in ruins. No one here can figure out if this is because the development was illegal, or perhaps part of a corrupt land deal that is under investigation. Such information is not public, so villagers can only speculate. Mostly, they try to forget.

But the teasing allusions to the futility of speculation, and the strong intimations of something conspiratorial or dodgy going on with the land, are misleading — though we are in no position to state whether the allusions and intimations were intended to be. Informed readers will and should know that the golf boom/bubble was for a time a favourite with both the broadsheets and other periodical literature, and there’s nothing odd at all about either development of a golf course being summarily halted, or the details of land-deals being nondisclosed.

There are plenty of educated, culturally-astute, patriotic, wealthy Chinese, both in China and overseas, who are better placed than The Ford Foundation to spearhead and realize efforts to preserve both the gold and the dross of China’s rural traditions. When preservation of Chinese rural traditions matters more to enough Chinese, then there will very likely be more preservation.

So what is this article about then, really?

Nothing of any real importance to anyone — except for China-writers and deep-pocketed foundations.


* There is no such thing as “intrinsic value”. All value is relational, and every relational perspective on value can be always recast in terms of utility. We address this elsewhere, but see generally Noah M Lemo, Intrinsic Value (Cambridge: 1994), and http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2653805?uid=3739696&uid=308824283&uid=2&uid=3&uid=3739256&uid=60&sid=21103376308817.  An interesting paper on a related subject is Jeffrey Friedman (2013) “Freedom Has No Intrinsic Value: Liberalism and Voluntarism”, Critical Review 25 (1) 38-85. It is very unlikely that a either sober Lemos or a sober Friedman would agree with our thesis regarding intrinsic value.

** “Fabric” of “lives” is metaphorical, of course, and a bit airy-fairy, but the nonsense of the phraseology is compounded by Mr johnson concretizing that metaphorical fabric by referring to it as ‘physical’.

So, what physical fabric was destroyed? We presume that buildings – no doubt unsafe, if not positively squalid – were knocked-down, and the ancestral temple has not been preserved with the hoped-for diligence and enthusiasm. (Although lack of maintenance seems not to be tantamount to destruction, putting the words ‘destroy’ and ‘temple’ into contextual neighbourhood does effectively raise hackles.)  Just in case the phrase destroyed the physical fabric of their lives makes a lick of sense at all, we do not think it it is an apt characterization of what is happening here. Whether the NYT spins the demolition of buildings and luke-warm historical preservation efforts as physical fabricide or as urbanization, surely it is for the locals themselves to say whether the changes to their village are on the whole positive or otherwise. We have little insight on that head based on the conversation Mr Johnson reports having had with Mr Lei; but having had many similar conversations with Chinese villagers over the past 14 years, it is more likely that Mr Lei is non-plused about matters than that he is deeply aggrieved. We doubt also whether one Mr Lei may speak for or on behalf of the entire village — something which should surely be offensive to the NYT’s egalitarian and democratic sentiments.