I’m not much of a videogamer, but when I do occasionally play, I play a soccer game called FIFA. I enjoy it because it goes beyond playing soccer matches, allowing you to strategically build your game plan and team by buying and selling players. In this, I like to focus on developing young players. Any player over 30 will only degrade in quality, losing financial value as a result. If I could win without that player, it is financially and strategically smart to unload him.
The fact that I’m a aging out of my own virtual soccer match doesn’t escape me. I have a heightened awareness of that lost step in my sprint speed, even as I push myself to new athletic limits. Sure, I could do more things right in caring for myself, but I have a good balance.
I can only do so much. Aging is a reality, but I’m healthy and happy, and I’m ready for the journey. That people do things that so directly create and accelerate their decline, though, really horrifies me.
We all die someday
That’s the thing with smoking. I’ve heard the flippant retort that “you have to die someday,” but it isn’t that simple. Smoking is a slow degradation of health and quality of life, manifesting itself in small, incremental ways. I can’t avoid getting older, but I can’t imagine not doing everything I could to avoid that path.
I know I will die, and I know that I take risks and don’t do everything I could to maximize my lifespan. Most people don’t live with living a long time in mind. They live to have a quality of life. Being healthy, active, and able is what makes life worth living for me, and it should be a priority.
Perhaps this is applying my lens on the world too eagerly, but I want that for everyone. I want them to think for the future, to be healthy, to be happy, and to take pride in themselves. That’s one reason why smoking, like almost nothing else, sends me into a spiral of sadness.
I’ve always hated smoking, but that was mostly a visceral reaction. It’s gross. It is quite the absurd operation to light something on fire, draw the smoke into your lungs, and render yourself unapproachable to discriminating individuals to enjoy your indulgence. I still wholeheartedly have that reaction, and have a hard time understanding how people partake on that point alone, but I realize that isn’t exactly a robust position. I pride myself in seeing other perspectives, and spending time exploring the nuances.
While many in their youth tend to oversimplify things in order to justify them, with smoking being a great example, I had a tendency to do the opposite. I saw the stumbling drunk and assumed that is what drinking was about, and as a result, avoided it diligently until well past my 21st birthday. That was oversimplified, and while the visceral reaction to smoking is valid, it too isn’t an adequate treatment of the issue.
Through a lot of thinking on the topic, I’ve basically disassembled and reassembled my disgust with smoking, even while admitting that I’ve oversimplified and overstated risks in the past. As a result of this though process, though, I’m even less tolerant of smoking, while I’m usually softened by that kind of analysis. Still, I look forward to well-articulated opposing viewpoints in response, though I’ve found defensiveness toward a mostly indefensible position make these difficult to come by.
While society has become less and less accepting of smoking as we’ve learned more, I still feel we focus on the wrong factors and tolerate it as a collective more than we should — and this tolerance is enabling. I’ll always defend anyone’s right to do with their bodies as they please, but I’ll still feel a crushing sense of sadness when someone I care about lights up. And so should you.
It is a choice… until it isn’t
Imagine how differently you would feel if you knew 80% of the people drinking in a bar were alcoholics. The enjoyment they get from a drink is ever dulled, and they reach for the next not by choice but by compulsion. The bar would be the most depressing place on Earth.
That’s the reality with smoking. It is widely considered more addictive than heroin, and smokers often have a troubled relationship with it. Though they may claim to choose it, the majority don’t have much choice in the matter — no matter how they rationalize it. It isn’t a habit, it is a trap.
Is the only reason we don’t hear “I only do heroin when I drink” that one can’t buy black tar at the gas station or bum it from your friend? There are plenty of “social smokers,” who use cigarettes as the readily available and relatively acceptable recreational drug. There are a lot of reasons smoking is prevalent and legal while other drugs are not, but all of that aside, in the avoidance of addiction, one would be better off doing cocaine. The very prevalence and general acceptance of cigarettes opens doors to users, probably more profoundly than legality does.
The trap is set
Nicotine is ingeniously designed by nature to hook you. A smoker’s brain immediately starts getting accustomed to the scrambled wires it sees, and it takes more and more nicotine to produce the same effect. In the pursuit of those effects, dependence is easy to find.
In a recent Freakonomics podcast, a professor, bioethicist, and cancer doctor from the University of Pennsylvania, Ezekial Emanuel, opposed discriminating against smokers in hiring practices, despite knowing the horrors of smoking first hand and having every reason to want to prevent them. Why?
“I also recognize that it’s not voluntary, that most people start before they’re adults and that it’s incredibly hard to quit once you’ve started.”
So what excuse do adults have?
Countless people want to quit and can’t. The very mechanics of willpower that may cause someone to start makes them the more likely to be trapped once they do. The tremendous health effects aside, for someone trapped as a smoker, that first cigarette was a life sentence.
In Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell uses social smoking as an example of how something reaches a point and tips over into addiction. On that road, each additional cigarette is bolstered by the last. As the subtitle of the book suggests, that’s a little thing that makes a big difference. For the casual smoker, the thought that each cigarette is an isolated choice strikes me as dangerously naive — and callous to those who struggle with addiction.
Addiction is horrifying
Everyone knows, in some abstract and incomplete way, at least, that smoking is bad for you. That’s this sort-of long term, someday you’ll die understanding most people have.
But smoking doesn’t wait for one fateful day to flip a switch and kill you. It kills you a little every time, even if you ultimately or episodically quit and recover.
That’s pretty scary, sure, but that’s not the scariest part for me.
The presence of a force more powerful than my will, overriding my good sense, making me rationalize the illogical, and all-but forcing me to chase its next sweet hit? That’s horrifying. I can’t imagine having such a controlling unhealthy presence in my life, forcing its way into relevance whether welcome or not.
“The hardest thing I ever did.” That’s how a strong, go-getter friend of mine who recently quit described the process of quitting, which is still the focus of her attention every single day. That a recreational substance could take such a central role in someone’s life narrative seem absolutely crazy — especially when it is so avoidable.
Even if smoking had absolutely no other ill effects, the fact that it has more control over most of its users than they have of it is a compelling reason it should freak us out. I wouldn’t mess around with bubble gum if I knew there was even a remote chance I wouldn’t be able to approach the appeal of a piece of gum without a clear head.
Remember that quote from above? “Not voluntary.” The addicted smoker doesn’t get to call their own shots.
Smoking is regressive
Smoking is a vicious cycle for all users, but no more than for the people who can least cope with it. If it is a baited trap for the social smoker, it is a prison for the user in poverty.
This is obviously where the debate goes beyond individual choice, but I can’t help but feel that a tolerant view toward smoking demonstrates a callousness toward the larger crushing crisis.
The data is shocking. Over 45% of people who never graduated high school smoke. More than a third of GED recipients are smokers, while less than 10% of undergraduate degree holders are.
Smoking disproportionately impacts the poor and poorly educated. The people who can least afford it are most often the ones stuck in the cycle of dependence. The most hopeless are the most likely to have a hopeless relationship with smoking. The populations who need it most have the least access to means of quitting, and even less information on how or why they should. This is a group unlikely to have health insurance, facing the compounding health challenges of poverty and smoking with little or no treatment. Suffering.
Much of this can be attributed to a different perspective toward the potential consequences. Not everyone has all of the information.
What excuse, then, do those of us with the means and inclination to understand these risks and impacts have for turning a blind eye? The data clearly shows that the more we know, the less we tolerate. We have a responsibility to know and understand, and not be willfully ignorant or keen to ignore or rationalize away the reality and enormity of this issue, both collectively and in the individual lives of those it impacts profoundly — either now, or after a few more cigarettes.
We need to be willing to know better.