Why I Smoke

By Max Fawcett | June 27, 2003

I was exposed to cigarette smoking – and the socializing habits of smokers – throughout my childhood. Now, in current social climate that is largely dominated by anti-smoking safety-Nazis, this might seem like a very bad thing. A few completely crazed anti-smoking activists have gone so far as to call this child-abuse. I don’t see it that way. But while I resisted the urge to smoke for the greater part of my adolescent and early-adult life, I think that I knew I would eventually take up the habit.

I am – or was until my father and step-mother provided me with a sister six years ago – the youngest child of two confirmed smoking parents, one a lawyer and the other a teacher and writer. Both are intellectuals and both have my deepest respect and love. My older brother, who I looked up to as a child and still admire very much, also smoked, although he has since quit and now denounces the habit like many other ex-smokers. I think that I have been very lucky to grow up in such an interesting, albeit unconventional, family. On both sides I was exposed to interesting adults who obliged my often-irritating curiosity and in return earned my grudging acceptance that they were “cool, ” if not always agreeable to my demands.

Even when I was a teenager and not yet a confirmed smoker, I found the look and smell of cigarette smoke strangely appealing. I say strangely because almost everyone I know complains about the “awful” stench cigarettes produce. I liked both the smell and the wreaths of smoke from the beginning, and I even dated a girl for a short time in university almost entirely because she smoked, even though I didn’t.

Okay. I can hear the self-righteous murmuring of anti-smoking activists reading this. They would simply stroke his or her chin and wax on about how my experiences confirm the fact that parents must not be allowed to smoke in front of their children. On this point I agree – partially. I don’t think it requires a huge leap to say that parents are the most important role-models for children, and I don’t smoke in front of my younger sister. Neither does my father. But one needs to remember that when I was raised, smoking wasn’t considered the social evil that it is – rightly or wrongly – assumed to be today.

There is a point on which these same anti-smoking activists are correct. The story of my first cigarette provides an illustration of the powerful allure that cigarettes have, and likely always will. I was at my best friend’s birthday party and we were all in grade 7 – I suppose this would have made us 11 or 12 years old. My particularly rebellious friend produced a cigarette that he had stolen from his older brother and suggested that we all go for a walk and do the deed. Suffice to say that while I was apprehensive about the possibilities of this walk, I went along anyways. I can still remember the feeling as we walked along the street in our neighbourhood, a gang of boys with a cigarette and our first real taste of independence. Prior to that our only experience with cigarettes had been of the bubble-gum variety, and even then we experienced that intoxicating surge of power that comes with one’s first taste of doing what is conventionally forbidden. But this was different – much different. And although it would be 6 years before I had my next cigarette, the seed had been planted in my head. For better or worse, smoking was cool.

I give all this background information because I do not think that one should judge a smoker’s motives without knowing something of his or her early development. While one is able to make more choices as an adult, the context in which those choices are made and the underlying preferences that fuel them are the product of one’s upbringing. That said, as individuals in a free and equal society everyone has both the right and the ability to make their own decisions. The libertarian part of my liberalism gets very annoyed when people, whether elected governments, non-governmental interest groups, or just ordinary people off the street, tell me what I can and cannot do. I accept that there are certain legal limitations that we all must respect and I have since dispensed with my reservations about the non-smoking laws that are a fact of life in most major Canadian urban centres.

What I don’t accept is the accompanying social elitism and snobbishness of the anti-smokers. The oppressive attitudes and behaviours that most non-smokers have towards smokers is perhaps the most profound, if not practical, reason why I smoke. The very reason why I became a Liberal was because I was so impressed by the ideas of Pierre Trudeau, a man who personifies the struggle for individual rights in a society defined by its groups. As I began to defend smokers and smoking more vigorously and more regularly, I decided that I needed to walk the walk if I was going to talk the talk as much as I did. So, while my parents may be guilty of raising a smoker, they didn’t raise me to be a hypocrite.

It might seem strange but there are reasons why people smoke other than the obvious addictive qualities of the product. I can think of four reasons to smoke, and to enjoy it.

1. Smoking is rebellious: While this has become less of a factor in recent years due to the volume of anti-smoking propaganda, I suspect that we are seeing the beginnings of a backlash that will see smoking become more popular among young adults. It’s common sense to say that the more you prevent young people from doing something the more they will want to do it.

2. Smoking is socially enjoyable: I can’t count the number of people I know who claim to be “social smokers”. In essence, they light up when they are out drinking and in the company of friends. While I do not doubt the honesty of their claim, I think that it speaks to the persistent social allure of smoking in spite of the many marketing campaigns that have argued the reverse. There is something truly pleasurable in lighting up after an enjoyable meal, a good conversation, a nice glass of cognac, and yes, the well-worn image of the post-coital cigarette. For many people it enhances the otherwise enjoyable moments of their life and provides them with a sense of contentment.

3. Smoking provides a sense of space: True, smoking consumes time during the day, but it also provides the smoker with an opportunity – no, a requirement – to slow down and catch his or her breath, pun intended. It provides him or her with a physical, mental, and social obligation to slow down, take a break, and sit still. For people who have busy lives this can be a true blessing. I know that it is for me, because it gives me time to sit still and have a think when I otherwise wouldn’t be able to rationalize a break from work.

4. Smoking is a social lubricant: Not like alcohol in the sense that it lowers inhibitions and such, but rather in the sense that it puts you in interesting social situations that you would not otherwise encounter. I meet so many fabulous people when I head out for a smoke, and the clannishness of it creates a social bond that might not otherwise be there. Make no mistake, I’m not saying that smokers are a priori more interesting people than non-smokers, but based on the purely anecdotal evidence that I have (which others have corroborated) I find that smokers on the whole tend to be dynamic, intriguing individuals.

5. Smoking promotes a healthy outdoor lifestyle: Let see here, you get plenty of fresh air, you have to walk to find places where it’s acceptable to smoke, and the lighting of the cigarette helps tone your arm muscles. Well, maybe not that last one.

That said, the familiar argument that smoking is undesirable because it is “bad for you” just isn’t enough. Essentially, this kind of reasoning assumes that by placing an undue burden upon their fellow citizens, smokers are violating the social contract. I do accept that it is bad for me and that I may become a burden on the healthcare system later in life. But I also accept that I pay a massive quantity of taxes on each cigarette I enjoy in addition to my regular contributions to the public purse through income and provincial and federal sales taxes. At this point non-smoking advocates would surely provide me with a figure contradicting my assertion that my financial contributions to society balance out any potential costs I may incur as a smoker. Unfortunately, they fail to see the bigger picture here.

I will admit at this point that I am not a professional statistician or a healthcare lobbyist so I do not know the exact financial burden that smokers place on the healthcare system in comparison with the contributions they make through their addition tax burden. But, while I think that the numbers would be close, the more important point here is a philosophical one. There are other habits that we as individuals engage in that are not taxed to the teeth like cigarettes and that place a substantial financial burden on other Canadians.

For example, should I, as a fit individual who works out regularly and eats well, be burdened by the healthcare costs of someone who weighs 350lb, lives off Timbits and McDonalds, has type-two diabetes and is on his or her way to a triple-bypass? Should I, as someone who does not own a car and regularly uses public transportation, be forced to cover the healthcare costs of a reckless driver who wraps his modified Honda Accord around a tree? Should I, as someone who regularly wears sunscreen and a hat during the summer months, be underwriting the costs of cancer treatment for someone who recklessly tans him or herself to a crisp? It is totally illogical to apply one standard to one kind of bad behaviour and a different one to another. If we are going to punish one group of citizens because they are creating an unfair burden on others, we should apply the standard across the board.

Before I answer this rhetorical question I should again stress that I do support the intent of the non-smoking bylaws. Unfortunately, the science of second-hand smoke does not support the fervent rhetoric of most anti-smokers. While it is a widely held belief that second-hand smoke is a danger on par with intravenous drug use, the recent findings of a study published in the May 17th, 2003 edition of the British Medical Journal that could find no empirical evidence that second-hand cigarette smoke is dangerous stands as a serious challenge. While I find it a bit discomfiting, I am drawn to Fraser Institute author and researcher John Luik’s surprisingly lucid insight that “the second-hand smoke scare represents junk science’s biggest success story…as evidence mounts that second-hand smoke is not dangerous, the belief that it is seems to grow stronger.” The very foundation of the supposedly strongest arguments of non-smokers is, to say the least, tenuous.

But seemingly irrespective and irregardless of the shaky science that support their claims, non-smoking activists continue to push the limits of their arguments. Thus it should be no surprise that the new non-smoking bylaws that are cropping up in almost every major city in Canada (and even in New York) are being advanced well beyond their logical boundaries. The recent decision by the city of Ottawa to deny private clubs the right to set their own rules speaks to the intolerance that characterizes the non-smoking position. For example, the Ottawa Press Club, which is private and has a membership that is dominated by smokers, is still subject to the Ottawa by-law’s limitations. MacLaren’s, a bar whose owner constructed a sealed room with full ventilation that was to be used only by smokers, was repeatedly fined for its refusal to toe the line in spite of the fact that no employees would enter the room and the bar’s non-smoking customers would be totally unaffected. To make matters worse, a total ban on smoking in non-enclosed public spaces was recently announced in Stratford, Ontario, and is set to take effect on April 1st of 2004. It is the next logical step forward in the increasingly illogical war on smoking and smokers.

Why is this happening? I have a theory. Instead of being perceived as an undesirable behaviour on par with over-eating, dangerous driving and reckless sun tanning, smoking is now viewed by health professionals and their allies as a moral failure and a fundamental character weakness. I cannot count the number of times people have criticized smokers as “weak” because of our addiction, all the while failing to remember that a great many of us smoke because we actually enjoy it. Just imagine for a moment if we cast all behaviour that has addictive properties in those terms. Would we, for example, consider coffee drinkers morally deficient? Of course not – well, except perhaps for people who only take their coffee in the form of a Starbucks no-foam, low-fat, soy-milk, iced nutmeg cappuccinos. It’s open season on them.

Ultimately, when a behaviour is treated like a character flaw the language and the ideas that surround it become very personal and very nasty. In many ways, the treatment of smokers is not entirely unlike the treatment of gays and lesbians just a few years ago. Instead of exercising our right to choose what suits our interests and our desires, subject to those of others (hence my support of non-smoking laws) it becomes a kind of crippling moral depravity. In this day and age of political correctness it has become fashionable to persecute smokers as undesirable elements of society in the same way that Joseph McCarthy pursued suspected communists over fifty years ago.

For those who think that we have come along way from the days when women and ethnic minorities were openly and visibly discriminated against, think again. While I do not dispute that we have made great strides towards equality in many respects, we have not yet eliminated the reptilian urge to bully others that motivates discrimination and group-oriented hatred. The burden has simply been shifted such that where the bullying once occurred as a result of physical characteristics it now focuses its energies on lifestyle choices. Regardless, it is just as arbitrary and unfair as the other types of bullying that we as a society have largely addressed. Although some might argue that it is not of the same magnitude, it still exists and it is still nasty and unpleasant for those who are the targets of this bullying.

If we are to create the society that Trudeau envisioned in which free and equal individuals are allowed to make choices based on their own reasoning and are not subject to any group-oriented discrimination, then we all have a duty to fight against those who would deny us this right even if we don’t particularly like the behaviour we’re defending. The defence of liberty and freedom is not a part-time endeavour, and it is not conditional upon ones likes and dislikes. To paraphrase an old cliché, if you do not protect your neighbours when they are being attacked unjustly, who will be left to defend you when it’s your turn?

Once again, I am not arguing against anti-smoking bylaws and I am not blind to the fact that smoking could kill me. But so could a great many other things as well, and I should be allowed to engage in a legally sanctioned behaviour without being made to feel like a cultural leper. I know that many smokers will agree with much of what I have written, but I leave this final thought as a call to action to those who do not and to those who do not smoke at all. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who would sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither. As distasteful as you might find this particular habit, we as citizens must be allowed to make our own choices as we see fit – that is, unless you happen to be standing in front of me at Starbucks.

Ottawa, June 26 – 2,782 words.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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