Smoking Who's to Blame?

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I recently gave a speech about cigarettes to a libertarian discussion group called the Junto here in New York City. I had expected the conversation to pivot on the question of free will not only do libertarians defend the legal right to smoke, many scoff at the idea of addiction, since each individual must ultimately be held accountable for his own decisions, healthy or unhealthy.

As it turned out, we never really got to that issue, since many in the group did not even accept that health statistics show smoking to be a highly risky individual decision. Some didn't seem to accept that statistics ever show anything at all. I'll leave the empirical debate to the Centers for Disease Control and insurance actuaries for now (smoking appears to take about a decade off the life of the average smoker, with a lot of wild variation, though one member of the audience insisted it was a mere three years; for ACSH's summary of the risks, see our booklet on Cigarettes: What the Warning Label Doesn't Tell You).

Instead, I'd like to make one brief point about the moral/legal debate. Clearly, it's underlying anxiety about "who to blame" for smoking's devastating effects that leads people to make strange empirical claims about the causes and consequences of smoking. Whether it's tobacco execs claiming nicotine isn't addictive, libertarians claiming statistics are meaningless, some anti-smoking ads focusing all their energy on the corporate villainy of the tobacco companies (instead of providing health information), or some smokers claiming that they have no choice in the matter, strange empirical claims are usually a sign that someone is trying to fend off or redirect blame.

If there were some way to assure everyone that they would not be sued, fined, or held solely morally responsible for the problem of smoking, it might be much easier to talk about smoking causation in a rational way and to agree on what should be obvious: that many causal factors lead to smoking (regardless of which factors, if any, ought to be morally or legally attacked).

One need not dismiss the ultimate significance of individual choice, for instance, to agree with the following three points:

Companies such as Philip Morris selling cigarettes (instead of going into another line of work) makes people more likely to smoke. True, Philip Morris and similar companies are meeting a demand from customers, and those customers might simply start rolling their own if cigarette manufacturers closed up shop. But surely if the companies did go into another line of work, customers would be more likely to think twice before taking up the habit, and they might stop to ask why no one is proud to be thought of as a cigarette manufacturer. (Until that day, companies will try to have it both ways: promoting cigarette use and occasionally trying to avoid moral and legal condemnation by partially warning people of the health risks see Dr. Elizabeth Whelan's article on Philip Morris's latest efforts in this department. Philip Morris no doubt worries about appearing health-conscious in the eyes of jurors and trustworthy in the eyes of the FTC at a time when that commission is debating whether to allow continued marketing of cigarettes with the misleadingly safe-sounding terms "light" and "low-tar.")

Magazines such as Newsweek choosing to run cigarette ads contributes to the apparent social acceptability of smoking, making people more likely to smoke. One month ago, ACSH sent a letter to Newsweek criticizing cigarette advertising in that magazine, and Newsweek's director of sales operations responded that Newsweek has long been troubled by the smoking issue and would happily comply with laws against cigarette advertising in magazines if there were any but will in the meantime continue to respect the right of their readers to smoke. Fine, but no one had suggested that Newsweek was violating readers' rights only that they if they stopped encouraging readers to smoke (and were willing to forego all that ad revenue, which they never once mentioned in the letter), their readers might be better off. Again, the anxiety over legal and moral issues led Newsweek to dodge the more obvious causal point: that ads make smoking look more like a good idea, an acceptable everyday habit.

Glamorizing smoking in films likewise contributes to the apparent social acceptability of smoking (I am reminded of the odd film Gattaca, which depicted a future society where everyone is obsessed with being genetically perfect and in flawless good health but they smoke like chimneys). The World Health Organization, American Medical Association, Los Angeles County's public health director, and the group Smoke Free Movies recently called on filmmakers to stop incorporating so much cigarette product placement and advertising into films. One can reasonably believe that such campaigns and any subsequent reduction in on-screen smoking are positive without believing simply that "It's the movies that cause smoking!" (and without thinking that on-screen smoking ought to be outlawed).

At the same time, one need not dismiss all of the social and environmental factors noted above to agree with the following point:

Individual smokers sometimes use the existence of outside forces such as the ones listed above (or more mundane factors such as stress) as an excuse to avoid making a sincere effort to quit. In the end, since even a world where smoking was completely illegal would probably have a black market in cigarettes, individual smokers' efforts to quit will always matter more than public policy decisions. That's why ACSH doesn't just talk about legal developments but instead does things like publish a book on Smoking Cessation that compiles all the best info on how to quit (a revised edition is due in early 2003).

None of the people described above belong in jail or an asylum but we shouldn't deny the plain fact that it would be beneficial if they stopped doing what they're doing, regardless of who deserves what portion of the final blame for all those smoking-related health problems.


December 11, 2002

I fail to see how anyone could disagree with the tenor of this article. What troubles me is that the whole chain of arguments could be used (but never is) with respect to, say, the automobile, which if you believe in statistics, that is kills more individuals than does tobacco (I am not a cigarette smoker).

I am still waiting for people to raise their voices against the slaughter on the roads, for visible warnings to be posted on the outside of cars, and for automobile ads to be banned from TV and magazines. But the human mind is anything but open to clear logic. So live and let live.


Seavey replies: Actually, about ten times as many people die from smoking-related illness each year in the U.S. as from car accidents, and cars do not end up killing a significant fraction of their users, whereas about a third of smokers arguably die from their habit. That does not mean either cars or cigarettes should clearly be banned, but considering how useful cars are while cigarettes serve mainly to satisfy/perpetuate the craving for more cigarettes one might reasonably be less worried about cars.

August 5, 2003

Seavey writes: "how useful cars are while cigarettes serve mainly to satisfy/perpetuate the craving for more cigarettes."

Who are you to determine what's useful and what's not in my pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness? Therein lies the real problem: people who must insist how others' lives should be lived.