People who smoke are not evil.


(Image of a Mayan priest smoking from Wikipedia.)

I’ve been thinking about a different but still dying-related subject lately.

Over the last fifteen years or so I’ve watched with dismay as the denigration of people who smoke escalated into a kind of national past time. I’ve occasionally even heard them described in terms so derogatory that it put me forcibly in mind of parallel language used by hate groups, and this from the mouths of people who sincerely, deeply abhor discrimination and prejudice.

That caliber of conversation can be very seductive and feel so good and right and even funny to those engaging in it, but in reality it’s not terribly helpful to anyone who’s actually trying to quit.  I think we’d all be better off if that part of the discussion took a more constructive direction.

I’d like to mention here that there is no such thing as a smoker.  (Well, there is, but it’s a piece of equipment that dries meat.)  There are human beings who smoke, which are two completely different things that we need to separate in our minds and then deal with accordingly.  It’s perfectly appropriate to condemn tobacco use and the dealers who market and peddle the poison and make fortunes off of the misery they create, as well as the incredible trail of destruction that smoking leaves in its wake.  But it’s misguided and counterproductive to condemn the living, breathing, struggling human beings who have been caught by the addiction.

Here are a few stats from the Division of Periodontology at the University of Minnesota (smoking wreaks havoc on gums, too) that might help explain:

Tobacco is as addictive as heroin (as a mood & behavior altering agent). 

  • Nicotine is:
    • 1000 X more potent than alcohol
    • 10-100 X more potent than barbiturates
    • 5-10 X more potent than cocaine or morphine  

Pressures to relapse are both behaviorally & pharmacologically triggered.

(A pit stop at their website to peruse withdrawal symptoms might also yield interesting fruit in terms of understanding how incredibly hard it can be to stop smoking.)

Please believe me when I tell you that nicotine addiction is a powerful, powerful enemy and it can require an almost superhuman effort to escape from the dingy, coughing, stinking prison it can create in a person’s life. I speak from experience.  In tobacco products, nicotine often behaves like a pusher or a pimp, seductive at first and promising all kinds of good things, then insidious, relentless and, finally, horribly abusive.  Some people can smoke occasionally without getting snared but for the millions of us who can’t, the addiction is dangerous, degrading, and eventually deadly.

After thirty some odd years of failed attempts I was finally able to quit.  I sincerely believe it’s for good this time (nine years now) although I’ve learned not to be complacent because cigarette cravings can spring back to life after years of dormancy with a viciousness that has overwhelmed my defenses more than once.

But I wasn’t able to finally quit because I was surrounded by strangers who were gazing at me with loathing, or whispering snide comments, or making me the butt of cruel and demeaning jokes.  Quite to the contrary in fact.  That kind of treatment was hurtful and humiliating and far from acting as a deterrent it tended to drive me back to the very real and powerful, if costly, relief that nicotine provides.

What did help were the people in my life who saw me as a flawed and smelly but still somehow beautiful human being worth loving in spite of my habit.  Ultimately, I had to enter the trenches and fight my demons alone, numerous times, just like every other addict does.  But the fact that I had people in my corner rooting for me and telling me they believed I was worth fighting for made all the difference in the world in my finally succeeding.

I hope that’s something you’ll consider if you find yourself looking at someone with a cigarette and feeling the urge to flippantly judge or condemn them.  Try and separate the tobacco from the human being if you can and then hate the one and find value in the other.  Of course, set whatever boundaries you need to where the smoke is concerned, but try and do it with respect and encouragement instead of contempt.  I honestly believe that will ultimately be of more benefit to everyone.

Here are some great tips for those who want to support someone they love to quit smoking:

Helping a Smoker Quit: Do’s and Don’t

10 Things Not to Do if You Want Someone to Stop Smoking

And for anyone trying to quit smoking and looking for support here are a couple of places where you might start:

Nicotine Anonymous

Resources for Quitting Smoking (full of hotlines)