Myth Communication: Selling a Smoke-Free Society

Speech at Reason Weekend

After years of research, I have managed to identify the fundamental premise of the anti-smoking movement:

You shouldn't smoke because it's bad for you.

This injunction is direct and to the point. It tells you what to do, and it tells you why.

On the other hand, it is a bit one-sided. Granted that smoking is bad for you in the sense that it raises the risk of certain diseases and tends to shorten your life. But might smoking also be good for you, in the sense that it provides pleasure, relieves stress, or offers some other benefit?

Many smokers seem to think so. The journalist Christopher Hitchens says "cigarettes improve my short-term concentration, aid my digestion, make me a finer writer and a better dinner companion, and, in several other ways, prolong my life. So when you tread, tread softly--for you tread on my dreams." National Review columnist Florence King writes, "I believe life should be savored rather than lengthened, and I am ready to fight the misanthropes among us who are trying to make me switch."

Julie DeFalco, a speechwriter with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, notes that tobacco's opponents "are making a personal judgment--that a long life without cigarettes is better than a shorter life with cigarettes--and attempting to turn it into a law applicable to everybody. I and many other people like to smoke. We get unquantifiable, but real, benefits from smoking. I like the entire ritual of lighting a cigarette, and I enjoy the first drag. Cigarettes are really nice when you feel stressed out."

Tobacco's opponents typically dismiss such statements out of hand. Scott Ballin, former chairman of the Coalition on Smoking or Health, once told me, "There is no positive aspect to [smoking]. The product has no potential benefits....It's addictive, so people don't have the choice to smoke or not to smoke."

Hence smokers who acknowledge the risks of their habit but cite countervailing rewards are dishonest or deluded, displaying the classic defense mechanisms of rationalization and denial. Sociologist Anne Wortham, herself a smoker, says tobacco's opponents believe that if you smoke, "you are in a state of false consciousness, because you are not aware of what is in your interests. It's the refusal to acknowledge people's capacity to make choices. You just define them out of the discourse. �Addiction' says they can't even talk about their own likes and dislikes. We can decide for them."

This is not a new dispute, by the way. During the research for my book, I came across a 1928 magazine article in which a smoker complained about "the tobaccorectionist" who "says that we do not smoke for pleasure at all; but that the habit, once begun, is continued in order to avoid the discomfort and even the pain of going without a drug. He brands the supposed joy spurious, a hypnoidal resultant of partially paralyzed nerves."

The refusal to acknowledge the benefits of smoking--to admit the possibility that anyone could rationally choose to smoke--illustrates the arrogance of insisting, "You shouldn't smoke because it's bad for you." Who are you, a smoker might well ask, to say what is good for me?

That objection has especially strong force when tobacco's opponents seek the government's assistance in discouraging smoking. To gain public support for that effort, they need a stronger argument.

One you will often hear is that

Smoking threatens the public health.

This certainly sounds impressive. No one, after all, is against the public health. The phrase calls to mind the control of infectious diseases, which has long been considered a legitimate function of government. Tobacco's opponents emphasize that pedigree, calling smoking "Public Health Enemy Number One," "the greatest community health hazard," "the single most important preventable cause of death," "the manmade plague," "the global tobacco epidemic."

The problem is that smoking is a not a disease. It is a pattern of behavior, something that people choose to do. Unlike typhoid or cholera, it is not transmitted to other people against their will, which is the aspect of communicable diseases that justifies government intervention.

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