, , , , , , , ,

We live in a country with a war on smoking (among other things). Smokers are ostracized, charged extra on health insurance plans, and now they can even be refused a job because they smoke.

I am not saying smoking is good. It’s not. There are countless pieces of evidence proving the dangers of smoking and the damage it causes. Although, as an interesting side note, there is some evidence to suggest smoking (well, nicotine, really) has some positive effects in some areas. Those links are at the bottom if you are interested. But I digress. I am not here to argue about the dangers of smoking; we can pretty much all agree that it’s bad for people’s health. It’s bad to smoke and secondhand smoke can be just as damaging. What I want to know is why smoking is such a big deal right now.

Far fewer people smoke than drink. Both drugs have negative effects and can cause harm (more indirectly in the case of alcohol) on those around you, but why is alcohol “fine” when cigarettes are not?

Today, in this country smokers are looked down upon. People who smoke often skulk away from their place of employment to hide their habit. Grown men and women who are fully functional members of society are turning corners and walking into alleys to smoke a cigarette in order to not be chastised. But as for drinking – well, ‘drinking is social, drinking is normal, everyone drinks’. If I go to a bar and I don’t want to drink, I get mocked. Conversely I couldn’t imagine a smoker mocking me for not smoking.

So, why is one highly dangerous and addictive drug such a terrible thing while the other is a normal part of our daily lives?

I’m sure many people will argue that the reason is cost. “Smokers cost the country more in sick days, in medical expenses, etc”, although personally when we are not talking about a chronic illness (like cancer) I’ve seen more “sick” days as a result of alcohol use than smoking cigarettes.

But here are the statistics I found. The drinking numbers refer to 2006, but this seems to be the newest info I can find (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/aug/15/buzz-kill-excessive-drinking-costs-us-223b-year/ this recent article in the Washington Times just cited the same numbers from 2006). The smoking numbers are from 2004, but again this is the most recent information I can find (it is still used on the American Lung Association’s website: http://www.lung.org/stop-smoking/about-smoking/health-effects/smoking.html).

Cost of smoking in 2004 in USA: $193 billion (http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/)

Cost of excessive drinking in 2009 in USA: $223.5 billion (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22011424)

It’s important to note that the number of smokers has reduced since 2004. Also, the number for cost of smokers includes lost work productivity as well as healthcare expenses.

Excessive drinking costs the US more than smoking, so why is the war waged on smokers?

Personally, I think its a scapegoat thing. We all do things that are bad for us, everyone has a guilty pleasure: the overindulgent Friday at the bar, the McDonald’s on the way home from work, the fancy cigar (on a side note, why is it apparently okay to smoke cigars but not cigarettes? I say that because I watch professors, professionals and public health people who otherwise demonize cigarettes contentedly light up a cigar on a special occasion). Cigarette smoking is something that proportionally many fewer people do, making it easy to spot someone who does. We can’t necessarily tell who doesn’t exercise regularly or who indulges in fast food a little too often, but we can see the smokers. We can demonize smokers, make them pay more, and forbid them from taking smoke breaks, but I think that is all missing the point and ignoring the bigger picture.

If we want to wage a war on “unhealthiness” (whatever that means) then why aren’t we being consistent? It’s because we don’t want to deal with the things we do that are not good for us. For most lawmakers and public health officials smokers are the “other,” the people doing obviously bad things to themselves for no good reason. They are the people we can pick out and say “you’re being bad, that’s bad for you” and we can forbid them from carrying out their guilty pleasure because it doesn’t affect us, but imagine if it were your guilty pleasure or unhealthy secret that you were being demonized, and charged more for doing.

Potential positive effects of smoking/nicotine:

  1. ^ “Smoking Cuts Risk of Rare Cancer”http://www.data-yard.net/10b/kaposi.htm
  2. “Urinary cotinine concentration confirms the reduced risk of preeclampsia with tobacco exposure”: http://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378(99)70107-9/abstract
  3.  “Does tobacco smoke prevent atopic disorders? A study of two generations of Swedish residents”: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2222.2001.01096.x/abstract;jsessionid=587DF0EEA6941D30AA0D3D85B7C3D9DA.d04t01
  4. “Smoking and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease: review of the epidemiological studies”: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432800002060