The Magazine


Jul 20, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 43 • By DENNIS PRAGER
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I have never been a cigarette smoker. I have never doubted that cigarette smoking is dangerous. I believe that American tobacco companies have systematically lied about the dangers of cigarettes. I accept the public-health statistic that one out of three cigarette smokers will die prematurely.

I have smoked a pipe and cigars since I was a teenager. The joy and relaxation that cigars and pipes have brought me are very great. I do not regret having begun smoking. Life does not afford us an unlimited number of daily pleasures that are as largely innocuous as cigar and pipe smoking. As for my three children, I would not be particularly concerned if they decided to smoke cigars or pipes, and while I would be unhappy if they took up cigarette smoking and became addicted to nicotine, I would not be unduly so. I would be considerably more unhappy if they became addicted to television. In fact, if smoking cigarettes is the most dangerous activity or worst vice my children ever engage in, I will rejoice.

I therefore do not consider cigarette smoking, let alone cigar or pipe smoking, to be worthy of the crusade society is waging against it. A simple common-sense health problem has been transformed into America's great moral cause. In the process, the war against smoking is playing havoc with moral values -- with the truth, with science and scientists, with children's moral education, with the war on real drugs, with the principle of personal freedom and much more that we hold dear. The war against tobacco, in short, has come to be far more dangerous than tobacco itself.

One particularly irresponsible aspect of the war against tobacco is the now commonplace equating of tobacco use with drug use. In California, which leads the country in sums spent on anti-smoking ads, billboards throughout the state proclaim that cigarettes and tobacco are drugs -- implicitly no different from marijuana or even heroin and cocaine. In fact, it has become a staple of anti-smoking rhetoric that it is harder to end nicotine addiction than heroin addiction. Now the anti-smoking forces want the Food and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine as a drug.

The only conceivable consequence of equating hard drugs, which can destroy the mind and soul, with tobacco, which can actually have positive effects on the mind and has no deleterious effect on the soul, is to lessen the fear of real drugs among young people. How could it not? If taking heroin, cocaine, and marijuana is the moral, personal, and social equivalent of smoking cigarettes, then how bad can heroin, cocaine, and marijuana be? After all, young people see adults smoking cigarettes all the time without destroying their lives.

The truth is that tobacco doesn't interfere with the soul, mind, conscience, or emotional growth of a smoker. As for the one trait cigarettes and drugs share -- addictiveness -- this tells us little. Human beings are addicted to a plethora of substances and activities. These include coffee, sugar, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, spending, and virtually every other human endeavor that brings immediate gratification and that people cannot, or choose not to, control.

In the past, when the moral compass of our society functioned more accurately, we fought the addictions that lead to social breakdown far more vigorously than those that can lead to ill health. Today American society and government do the opposite: They fight health dangers -- and actually encourage social dangers. For example, government now encourages gambling (by instituting lotteries and legalizing casinos, which advertise more freely than tobacco); government largely ignores alcohol, the addiction most associated with child abuse, spousal abuse, and violent crime; and it fails in its efforts to curb real drug addiction. All the while, it wages its most ubiquitous war against cigarette smokers, who pose no danger to society or family life.

Another irresponsible aspect of the war against tobacco is the demonization of smokers. In the span of a few years, smokers have been transformed from people engaged in a somewhat dangerous but morally innocuous habit into drug addicts, child abusers, and killers. Smoking has become, incredibly, an issue of moral character, not merely of health.

Here is one result:

Judges in divorce cases are increasingly considering smoking as a factor in deciding where to put the kids and retaining custody. . . . If a judge is so inclined, he can depict smoking as negative in two ways: dirtying the child's air and showing poor character.