[Insert ‘Butt’ Joke Here]

I could never be a smoker. The biggest reason might be my widely publicized disdain for people who smell bad (which everyone at least secretly agrees with, by the way). I’d hate to start smelling bad myself.

Smoking is very uncool in this century (the 21st), and especially in this state (Utah). But in the old days, everyone in the country smoked, especially movie characters. Humphrey Bogart always had a cigarette or a dame or both dangling from his lips. Shirley Temple would dance about merrily, prodded by off-camera branding irons, then say something adorable as she lit up a big, fat stogy. Lassie died of lung cancer. I could go on.

In those days, no one had any idea smoking was unhealthy. What could be more sensible than setting something on fire and sucking the smoke into your lungs? Then scientists discovered, lo and behold, that smoking was BAD for you. Everyone believed it, except the tobacco companies, which also believe the Earth is flat and the South won the war. Hillbillies like Sen. Jesse Helms continued to support the tobacco companies, all common sense, decency and oral hygiene aside.

According to the American Heart Association, every year more than 1 million people under 18 become smokers. Every year, one million kids START smoking. In the old days, when people weren’t very smart, I could understand this. But it’s the year 2001 — we live in the age of Chia-Pet technology, for crying out loud — and yet, there are still people dumb enough to take up smoking? I’m surprised anyone that stupid has the brain capacity to even light a cigarette, let alone a job that pays them enough to afford it.

Clearly, there are greater forces at work here than mere stupidity. And as much as I’d like to blame the tobacco companies for everything evil in the world, I really don’t think it’s their advertising that lures new smokers, consisting primarily as it does of images of leathery cowboys and grotesque camel-like beasts, neither of which ignites in me anything more than a determination never to become a cowboy or a camel.

Peer pressure doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. When I was a teen-ager, I lived in Southern California, where teen-agers are required by law to be cool. And yet, of the few people I knew who smoked, not one of them was cool. They were losers, and everyone knew it. I don’t know if they were losers because they smoked or if they smoked because they were losers; it’s a “chicken and the egg” thing, by which I mean I’m hungry and I’ll be ending this column soon. At any rate, kids were not, in general, taking up smoking because their peers were talking them into it.

So I’m going to have to blame the parents for this one. I suspect a lot of kids start smoking because they see smoking taking place at home. Sure, they know it’s bad for them, and maybe their parents even warn them not to start. But examples speak louder than words.

For example (see?), when I was growing up, my parents ran a secret, highly illegal cockfighting ring in our basement. They knew it was wrong. But it was so lucrative, and little Joy needed braces, and if you’ve ever been involved in cockfighting, you know it’s hard to get out once you get in. It’s like the Mafia in that regard. In fact, what the heck, my parents were in the Mafia, too.

Anyway, they always told my siblings and me not to get involved in such dirty business, but now that we’re all grown, you know what we’re doing? Telling lies about our parents in the newspaper.

The point is, 1 million new under-age smokers every year is about 999,000 too many. (I don’t care if the brats who are at Movies 8 every Friday night start.) Whether it’s advertising, peer pressure or parental example, we need to fix it. If the problem is just that kids are dumb, well, I don’t know what to do about that, except complain about it, which does seem to be helping.

This was originally part of a column addressing a variety of issues, and I decided this topic could be expanded into its own article. I was glad I made that decision, because the column it was going to be part of was very snotty and condescending -- which is fine, except that I didn't want to run it immediately after the Urine Man column, which was also snotty and condescending. So I was glad to have this one to run between them.

I should thank my friend Brett for doing some actual research for me on smoking statistics. He had a job at this time where he looked stuff up on the Internet for people, and sometimes he would get bored and I would give him tasks to complete for me.

After the Urine Man column, someone posted a comment on the Herald Web site predicting the next column would be full of backtracking and apologizing for my insensitive remarks. The parenthetical comment in the first paragraph here is my response to that theory: "Complain all you want, but I bet you secretly agree with me."