Is smoking a fake health crisis, like the birdemic? I'm gradually coming around to that point of view. I've never been a smoker myself (first I was too Mormon, then too mainstream/materialist, and now, well, 42 is a bit late in the day to take it up!), but I've been questioning the smoking-is-bad narrative for years (see my 2011 post on smoking and creativity, for example). What stimulated me to finally post this, though, was Adam Piggott's recent post "Smoking is Cool," plus a growing affection for smokers as just about the only unmasked faces I see in a typical day.
First of all, though, let's take a look at this remarkable little note published in 2001 in a major international medical journal.
Over the past few months we have learnt of a number of reports regarding a paper we published in this journal on the life expectancy of tobacco smokers in Vancouver in the late 1980s and early 1990s. From these reports it appears that our research is being used by select groups in US and Finland to suggest that smokers live an unhealthy lifestyle that is destructive to themselves and to others. These anti-tobacco groups appear more interested in restricting the human rights of smokers rather than promoting their health and well being.
The aim of our research was never to spread more hostility toward those who use tobacco, but to demonstrate to an international audience how the life expectancy of smokers can be estimated from limited vital statistics data. In our paper, we demonstrated that in a major Canadian centre, life expectancy at age 20 years for men who smoke is 8 to 21 years less than for all men. If the same pattern of mortality continued, we estimated that nearly half of male smokers currently aged 20 years would not reach their 65th birthday. Under even the most liberal assumptions, smokers in this urban centre were experiencing a life expectancy similar to that experienced by men in Canada in the year 1871. In contrast, if we were to repeat this analysis today the life expectancy of smokers would be greatly improved. Deaths from lung cancer have declined dramatically in this population since 1996. As we have previously reported there has been a threefold decrease in mortality in Vancouver as well as in other parts of British Columbia.It is essential to note that the life expectancy of any population is a descriptive and not a prescriptive measure. Death is a product of the way a person lives and what physical and environmental hazards he or she faces everyday. It cannot be attributed solely to their use or non-use of tobacco products or to any other behavioral or social factor. If estimates of an individual smoker's risk of death is truly needed for legal or other purposes, then people making these estimates should use the same actuarial tables that are used for all others in that population. Individuals who smoke are included in the construction of official population-based tables and therefore these tables are the appropriate ones to be used.In summary, the aim of our work was to assist health planners with the means of estimating the impact of lung cancer on groups, like smokers, not necessarily captured by vital statistics data and not to hinder the rights of smokers worldwide. Overall, we do not condone the use of our research in a manner that restricts the human rights of tobacco users or any other group.
Just kidding! The note wasn't really about smokers at all, but about men who practice sodomy. (See the original here.) Except for switching sodomy and AIDS to smoking and lung cancer, I have left the article unchanged. It's actually the habit of sodomy that reduces one's life expectancy by 8 to 21 years. The corresponding figure for smoking is 5 to 13 years, depending on how heavily one smokes, so we're talking about the same general ballpark.
So this is how respectable people talk about a practice that is roughly as hazardous as smoking -- and it's how they could talk about smoking, too, only no one ever does. Instead, smoking is singled out and vilified in a way that is, I think, unique. In many countries, including Taiwan, cigarette producers are required by law to disfigure their cartons with large gross-out photos of diseased lungs, rotted teeth, amputated toes, and the like. I understand the US is planning to start doing the same thing this year. Meanwhile, wine bottles remain simple and attractive, and no one is clamoring for them to add photos of cirrhotic livers or puking drunks or whatever. McDonald's menu boards are not required to feature photos of morbidly obese people on oxygen. (Actually, even saying that obesity itself is unhealthy is increasingly a no-no.) Supermarket labels do not feature helpful reminders like "Warning: This chicken was factory-farmed in conditions of extreme inhumanity and received daily injections of antibiotics." Driver's licenses don't include bloody photos of traffic accidents and scary statistics. And of course, sodomy itself is aggressively promoted as something to be proud of. "Joe Camel" ads were banned for targeting children, but banning sodomy propaganda targeting children is like a Nazi war crime or something. QWERTY pride is now a well-established social institution; can one even imagine a "smokers' pride" event? When I was in college, they held such an event on campus every year, but it was promoting illegal cannabis smoking, so it was okay. A similar event to promote good old-fashioned tobacco would be unthinkable.
So what's the deal? In a culture that tolerates, embraces, or actively promotes every imaginable vice, what is it about tobacco smoking that puts it beyond the pale? Yes, it's unhealthy; yes, it's addictive; yes, those who aren't into it generally find it unpleasant -- but those are its selling points! That's what the establishment likes! So why don't they like smoking? The fact that it is a "Native American" drug -- from the same officially approved minority group that brought us such not-gonna-judge drugs as ayahuasca and mescaline -- makes the establishment rejection of it even more puzzling. Better yet, it's got a feminist background; during the first wave of that movement, cigarettes were promoted as "torches of freedom," symbols of equality with men. Today, liberated women are still encouraged to drink and swear and get tattoos, but no longer to smoke. What, I ask again, is the deal?
I don't have an answer to that question, but it's enough to make me think that there must be something fundamentally good about smoking, or it would never be attacked like this -- and that what "everyone knows" about the terrible, terrible health hazards associated with smoking may, on inspection, turn out to be about as valid as what "everyone knows" about the birdemic or global warming. I haven't delved into this at all and probably won't bother to; I'm just saying it looks like a phantom menace and quacks like a phantom menace.
Mask compliance is currently universal in Taiwan. While I myself keep a mask handy in case I see a cop, I am very, very much the exception. Everyone wears masks all the time. The only unmasked faces I see outside the walls of my own home are those of smokers. It used to be that I would see a face and think, "Hey, a fellow mask rebel! -- oh, never mind, just a smoker." Now, though, I’ve realized that while it may be true that he just took off his mask to smoke and will put it back on again, at a deeper level smokers and non-maskies are on the same side. Whatever else a cigarette may mean, it certainly signifies a rejection of healthism and a refusal to kowtow to goodthink -- and anyone who's signaling that is all right in my book.