Barack Obama and the Rise of the Casual Smoker


The other day, Matt Welch noted that President-elect Obama admitted to Tom Brokaw that he still sneaks a cigarette now and then. Addiction expert (and reason contributor) Stanton Peele notes that Obama exemplifies an increasingly common type of smoker that anti-tobacco activists and public health officials like to pretend does not exist:

Barack Obama quit his early drug use when he got serious about life. Now, Barack is tackling the biggest taboo of all—cutting out his cigarette addiction but not quitting smoking altogether!

Last Sunday Tom Brokaw grilled Obama on Meet the Press about his furtive smoking. Obama answered that he had quit, but that he falls off the wagon sometimes. Brokaw pounced: "Then you still smoke!" Obama replied, "I have done a terrific job under the circumstances of making myself much healthier."

The data show that cutting back smoking or smoking occasionally is possible, and it does improve your health….

Contemporary college students who smoke do so less intensively—about half as many (7%) smoke a half pack or more of cigarettes daily today as did so in 1980 (13%). Most smoke less. Of course, smoking any number of cigarettes regularly is harmful; but smoking fewer cigarettes is less harmful—and potentially life saving over time. That more young people seem to be able to smoke casually instead of addictively is good.

Or at least that's what Barack Obama's example and statements would indicate.

Over at The Huffington Post, the Drug Policy Alliance's Tony Newman, who has himself repeatedly quit smoking, offers a similar observation:

Some see failure in Obama's current smoking status. I see success. While Obama could be a regular smoker, going through a pack a day, it sounds like he is an occasional smoker and has one here, one there. That is not a setback, that is progress! Obama shows that it is not all or nothing, but that moderate use may be attainable for some smokers.

According to the National Health Interview Survey, the share of American adults who were current smokers (i.e., people who have smoked more than 100 cigarettes in their lives and now smoke "every day or some days") fell from 37 percent in 1974 to 21 percent in 2006. At the same time, the share of current smokers who consumed fewer than 15 cigarettes a day increased from 32 percent to 53 percent, while average daily cigarette consumption among current smokers fell from 20 to 14.

Wherever Obama's consumption falls on the continuum from chipper to pack-a-day smoker, one thing is certain: Even if he did resume his former habit, he might suffer embarrassment, but he would not be arrested. "While it seems crazy to lock up someone who relapses over cigarettes," writes Newman, "it makes no more sense to lock up a cocaine addict who relapses."