It is no secret that smoking tobacco seriously harms your health. Although there are fewer smokers since the release of the landmark publication about the negative health effects of tobacco use in Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States (1964) many people still continue to smoke. Why? People who smoke want to smoke and really do not care about the dangers to their health or to others through second-hand smoke. The pleasures of smoking far outweigh the risks for smokers. The futility of making all present and future smokers quit was probably one of the reasons why Surgeon General wrote in the Foreword “The Committee’s assignment has been most difficult” (v). It seems ironic that this government publication was in part funded by taxes from cigarettes. Governments make billions of dollars per year from taxing cigarettes. People still smoke for these reasons: because smoking feels good, because they may need to smoke for their jobs, because governments make money off of cigarettes and because many smokers are caught in a cycle of poverty. There is no point in banning smoking since smokers will continue to smoke anyway.
American comedian Chris Rock perhaps summed a smoker’s attitude up best when he wrote in Rock This! (1997), “They say dealers force drugs on people. They don’t force drugs. They don’t have to. Dealers offer drugs” (55). Rock explains that crack dealers, for example, do not wonder, “Man, oh man, how am I gonna get rid of all this crack?” (55) The crack just sells itself because it makes people feel good. Nicotine has proven to be even more addictive than tobacco. It makes people feel good and so the good feeling cigarettes provide continues to sell itself even now in the so-called Age of Information.
How do cigarettes make people feel good? There may be as many answers as there are smokers. For example, legendary singer Nat “King” Cole (1919 – 1965) smoked because he thought smoking helped his voice sound so good. Even after doctors told him to quit smoking in 1953, he continued to smoke heavily until his death at age 45 from lung cancer because he wanted to keep up his voice’s high quality. Whether smoking really helped Cole sing any better is beside the point, since he so strongly believed it did that it is highly doubtful that he could have been persuaded to quit, even if the Surgeon General’s 1964 report had come out ten years earlier.
Another celebrity who smoked was the actor Jeremy Brett (1933 – 1995). According to Terry Manner’s biography, The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes – The Tortured Mind of Jeremy Brett (2001) Brett claimed to have smoked since a small child because he liked it. He liked the taste, the ritual of smoking and how it made him look rebellious. (22) As an actor, he had to stay slim for getting his roles. His most famous role was that of Sherlock Holmes – one of English literature’s most notorious smokers. Smoking helped reduce his appetite and keep as slim as he could until medications he took for bipolar disorder and cardiomyopathy caused him to put on weight through water retention. For Brett, smoking was not only gave him pleasurable, but it helped him stay employed.
However, not all smokers are anywhere near successful in their fields as was Cole and Brett. Many employers actively discourage their employees from smoking. They smoke anyway. Why? One theory put forward by sociologist Jason Hughes in Learning to Smoke: Tobacco Use in the West (2002) is that smoking helps people cope with stress and anxious situations through the chemical reaction nicotine has on brain receptors (9). Present-day smokers reported that effects of smoking included “a range of feelings, such as relaxation, stimulation and enhanced concentration may be given” (8). Cigarettes then become a quick-fix coping mechanism for getting through the rough patches of life.
Handling stress is a complex process that can take people a lifetime to learn. Some people cope with stress through meditation, exercise or taking up a hobby. These all take a long time to learn and can take up a large chunk of the day. Trying to learn a new hobby or meditation can be incredibly frustrating for beginners. By comparison, smoking a cigarette only takes a few minutes. This is why recreational drugs of any sort, legal or otherwise, gains such a powerful hold on people. Any drug, including nicotine will help people feel better when their lives are not going all so well. People tend to prefer quick-fixes rather than take the time to learn how to handle stress through non-chemical means.
There are not many quick alternatives available to smokers who want to quit but need to figure out how to cope with life’s problems. People are generally have little free time. They have to rush about with their job or jobs, take care of family members and do routine chores. They may see smoking as their only alternative for getting through life. They may still quit only if they hit rock bottom such as getting cancer or watching a loved one die from smoking-related causes, but then again, they may not. According to a 2012 Massachusetts General Hospital study published in the journal Cancer, 14% of lung cancer patients and 9% of colon cancer patients who smoke will still continue to smoke. One reason that cancer patients give doctors for still smoking include that they do not “think quitting will help.” Smoking has that powerful a hold on people.
There is a definite correlation between poverty and tobacco use, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO estimates that there are 1.3 billion smokers on the planet. Of these smokers, 84% live in “developing and transitional countries” which are much poorer than first world countries like Germany, Canada and the United States (3.) People living in poverty do not have access to good food or decent health care. Smoking a quick way to self-medicate and struggle through another day. Unfortunately, pointing out that the money spent on tobacco could be spent on better food and health care tends to fall on deaf ears. The big reason for this is tobacco withdrawal pains.
Withdrawing from tobacco effects each smoker differently. Some are still able to go to work every day and some need to be hospitalized. Withdrawal pains include strange tingling sensations in hands and feet; uncontrollable sweating; nausea; vomiting; constant headache; severe attacks of anxiety; insomnia; depression; severe abdominal cramps and a persistent cough. No wonder people who are trying to quit become so irritable. People in poor countries or who are living from paycheck to paycheck do not have the time to devote to dealing with these symptoms. They need to keep on working and taking care of their families. Those addicted to smoking can only function on a day to day basis by continuing to smoke.
Inevitably, smokers will get sick. For poverty-stricken families, this is a disaster if the money-makers get sick or die. How can the rest of the family support itself? Children may have to drop out of school or college in order to make money for their families. In order to cope, some children will learn to smoke in order to deal with their bad lives. Legal substitutes to smoking may not be available. WHO also estimates that treating people with smoking-related illnesses raises overall medical costs (7). So smokers continue to smoke, remain poor and die prematurely. If they have children then their children stay poor and have little choice but turn to tobacco for self-medication for hunger, depression and stressful times.
Another problem with getting smokers to quit is that their habit is legal. Although expensive, cigarettes are easily had through many stores and pharmacies. All tobacco products are heavily taxed, which can give the impression that smoking is good for the economy and keeping the government running. State and federal governments in the United States do not have an incentive for everyone to stop smoking. In the year 2007 alone, the American government earned a whopping $19 billion from taxes on tobacco products, according to The New York Times. The government also receives money from tobacco settlements from the late 1990s. These settlement amounts were so large that tobacco companies were given about 25 years to pay them off. Tobacco plays a large part of paying the government’s bills. Before tobacco could be totally banned by governments, they must have an alternative source of revenue. So far, they do not.
Although high taxes can help encourage people to quit or not start smoking in the first place, this is not always a problem for even the poorest of smokers. Cigarette smuggling is a thriving illegal business. Why are selling cigarettes illegal if buying tobacco products are legal? Smuggled or contraband cigarettes are sold without taxes. That is what makes them illegal. WHO estimates that the American government loses anywhere from $25,000 - $30,000 every year from illegally sold cigarettes. (9.) Not surprisingly, WHO reports that cigarette smuggling is more common in countries where government corruption is common. (10.) Unless those governments change, black market cigarettes will continue to be a problem.
There are many powerful reasons why people still continue to smoke cigarettes even though they are fully aware of the health risks. Poor smokers will neglect buying food, health care or other necessities so they can purchase cigarettes. Cigarettes make them feel good. Smoking seems to be a quick solution to dealing with everyday stress. People living in poverty have very few reasons to feel good and smoking is a quick way for them to feel good. For some people, especially in the entertainment industries, smoking helps them stay employed. People do not see easy alternatives to cigarette smoking that makes them feel as good as when they smoke. Tobacco withdrawal pains may seem too large to cope with. Governments also make billions of dollars per year in tobacco taxes and settlement payments. They do not have another source of income to make up for lost tobacco taxes. All of these factors combined will make cigarettes a troubling part of our culture for many generations to come.
Nicotine is one of the world’s most addictive drugs. Since this drug makes people feel good, cigarettes sell themselves. Many people do not have a good reason to quit because they do not see any quick-acting and long lasting alternatives to smoking. People are aware that they may die from smoking-related health problems. They do not seem to care because they may not be all that thrilled with how their lives are and thus have no incentive to live longer.
Banning tobacco is not a practical solution since addicts will do anything they can in order to feed their addiction. Making drugs such as methamphetamine, marijuana or heroin illegal has not eliminated their use. Giving people more information about the dangers of tobacco use will not help 100% of all smokers to quit or stop people from lighting up their first smoke. People will make their own decisions, even it’s a potentially dangerous decision like deciding to smoke. Smokers will only quit when they have decided to quit and nothing anyone can say or do can make them stop smoking until then. Until there is a good, cheap and quick substitute for smoking, people will still smoke and there is nothing that can be done about it.
U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964. Print.
Rock, Chris. Rock This! New York: Hyperion Books, 1997. Print.
Wikipedia. “Nat King Cole.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nat_King_Cole#Death Accessed April 27, 2014. Electronic.
Manners, Terry. The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes – The Tortured Mind of Jeremy Brett.
London: Virgin Publishing, 2001. Print.
Hughes, Jason. Learning to Smoke: Tobacco Use in the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.
Saul, Stephanie. "Government Gets Hooked on Tobacco Billions." The New York Times. August 30, 2008. Print.
World Health Organization. "Tobacco and Poverty: A Vicious Circle." 2004. http://www.who.int/tobacco/communications/events/wntd/2004/en/wntd2004_brochure_en.pdf
American Cancer Society. "Some Smokers Diagnosed with Cancer Don’t Quit." Accessed April 27, 2014. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/news/some-smokers-diagnosed-with-cancer-dont-quit