Blowing Smoke About Addiction, Ability To Quit


As part of its settlement agreement with 22 attorneys general who are suing the tobacco industry, the Liggett Group has admitted that cigarettes are addictive. The company's brands, including L&M, Lark and Chesterfield, will now carry a notice to that effect.

Anti-smoking activists hope the warning will deter teenagers from taking up the habit. It seems unlikely.

True, until now the cigarette companies have consistently denied that their product is addictive. But that does not mean anyone was fooled. After all, people have been remarking on the difficulty of breaking the tobacco habit for hundreds of years, ever since the plant became popular among Europeans.

When Bishop Bartholome de las Casas rebuked Spanish settlers in the West Indies for smoking, he reported in 1527, "They replied that they found it impossible to give up."

In his 1604 Counterblaste to Tobacco, James I observed, "The smoker at first hesitates between his liking for the reek of tobacco and his natural shrinking from so unnatural a habit, but soon becomes so obstinately addicted to it that he would sacrifice every pleasure in life rather than give it up."

The 17th-century polemicist Johann Michael Moscherosch called smokers "thralls to the tobacco fiend," while American clergyman Cotton Mather dubbed them "slave[s] to the pipe."

Fagon, Louis XIV's court physician, described tobacco use as "a fatal, insatiable necessity…a permanent epilepsy."

Psychiatric pioneer Benjamin Rush, who believed that people who develop a taste for liquor eventually become habitual drunkards, said "the progress of habit in the use of tobacco is exactly the same."

In 1853, an American temperance group awarded prizes for the best essays on "The Physical and Moral Effects of the Use of Tobacco as a Luxury." One of the winners wrote:

"Most emphatically does tobacco enslave its votaries….It is the uniform testimony of those who have attempted to emancipate themselves from their attachment and bondage to tobacco that to break the chains in which they are bound, requires the earnest efforts of reason, conscience and the will."

When Henry Ford published a collection of warnings against the cigarette in 1914, he called it The Case Against the Little White Slaver.

The consistency of these observations suggests that tobacco's addictive potential is obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. The average 14-year-old with a pack of Camels, of course, has no idea what James I or Henry Ford said about smoking. But his teachers have told him that tobacco is addictive. He has seen people struggling to give up cigarettes on TV and in the movies. He knows about relatives or acquaintances who have tried unsuccessfully to quit.

A teenager who starts smoking despite all these messages is not likely to be deterred by a new label. Indeed, an explicit warning about addiction could have the opposite effect by enhancing the forbidden status of cigarettes.

Watching a teenager on a recent Peter Jennings TV special talk about his craving for that first cigarette in the morning, I was struck by the kid's tone and posture: He was proud. For many adolescents, the idea of addiction is glamorous–it's a simple way to be complex.

The reality, of course, is different. But by the time a smoker gets old enough to think better of his habit, all the talk about the difficulty of quitting can be more than a little intimidating.

There are about as many former smokers in the United States as there are smokers, and 90 percent of them quit on their own, without formal treatment (usually by stopping abruptly). Yet tobacco's opponents often imply that quitting is not just difficult but impossible.

"Once they have started smoking regularly," David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, once said, "most smokers are in effect deprived of the choice to stop smoking." Such unjustified pessimism has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.