Trying to control unhealthy self-medication

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

The new ordinance banning smoking outdoors in  part of downtown Providence reflects the confusions and hypocrisies of American policies regarding tobacco and some other drugs (such as alcohol). On the one hand we say that smoking is very unhealthy and leads to many thousands of deaths a year and vast health expenses, on the other hand, tobacco products are legal and pull in billions of dollars a year in tax money. (Some argue that smoking, by causing early and often fast deaths,  actually saves on overall national health costs: Fewer of those too-expensive old folks who take so long to expire.)

I think that the new ordinance isn’t a bad idea. It may extend a few lives, including of those people who must breathe in second-hand smoke in situations such as waiting for buses at Kennedy Plaza. And there will be fewer cigarette butts and other smoking-related litter on the streets and sidewalks.

Smoking is self-medication for many mentally ill people, many, perhaps most of whom suffer from intense anxiety. Thus, assuming that the Providence police are willing and able to enforce the smoking ban, you might find fewer insane people hanging around downtown scaring some “normal people’’.  That, presumably, would be good for most retail and other businesses. But in our unfortunate era of deinstitutionalization, where will the mentally ill go? I’d guess that many will simply move to the edge ofdowntown, to join the ones below my window at the corner of Orms and Charles streets.

Now back to the scarier substance-abuse problem – opiate addiction and lethal overdoses.