Smokers, George Will says, lack “common sense.” In a late December opinion column in the Washington Post, Will declared, “Filling one’s lungs with smoke from a burning plant is dumb.” Yet in our digital age where people are eternally “plugged in”—where it’s increasingly rare to see anyone walking or standing around who isn’t immersed in some form of interactive technology—smokers, though shunned and ostracized, may be some of the last contemplatives of the West. Smoking, despite its deleterious effects, is one of our few remaining tools to facilitate reflective contemplation and fully human social interactions unencumbered by screen technology.
Anti-Catholicism, so it is said, is “the deepest-held bias in the history of the American people.” The prejudice against smokers—by now a decades-long program—is not far behind. I remember the shaming campaign from my elementary school years. A popular advertisement in the 1990s compared smokers to chimpanzees. More recently, surveys show that respondents consider smokers to be “outcasts,” “persecuted,” “lepers,” “under-class,” and “blacklisted.” A 2008 survey in New York City found most respondents agreed they “would not hire a smoker to take care of their children’’ and “would be reluctant to date someone who smokes.” Many respondents even agreed that smoking was a “sign of personal failure.” One 2014 Huffington Post article bears the title “Why Smokers Must Be Shamed.”
The result of this has been to drive smokers further and further from public spaces. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, several of my friends would routinely get together, buy a pack of cigarettes, visit some townie bar, and talk theology while we smoked and drank. No more of that—in 2009, with Democratic Governor Tim Kaine at the helm, the Old Dominion, the historic centerpiece of the tobacco industry, banned smoking in most bars and restaurants. Smoking is now also prohibited within 25 feet of federal buildings.
One less discussed aspect of the anti-smoking crusade is how it disproportionately targets the poor, as those below the poverty level are almost twice as likely to smoke. For the impoverished, this particular vice remains a stalwart coping mechanism. Wealthy folks, in contrast, can afford all manner of socially acceptable self-care: exercise, yoga, mental-health counseling, vacations, etc. Those a few rungs down the socioeconomic ladder can’t partake of these amenities, and thus turn to alcohol, tobacco, and, more recently (and disastrously), opioids. As one commentator notes, taking away one vice will likely only lead to finding another to replace it.
Some pundits argue that the shame campaign against smoking has obscured the fact that many other things can be just as detrimental, if not far worse, for our physical, emotional, and mental health. A New Oxford Review article from 2001 compares the negative effects of smoking and television, and argues that the latter is far worse for mankind, especially children. The author cites epidemiologist Brandon Centerwall, whose studies in the United States and Canada showed correlations between television use in children and increased murder rates, assaults, and rapes. More than 15 years later, children often have unfiltered, unsupervised access to iPads and smartphones. The negative side effects of these devices are legion.
The “there’s a whole lot of other things that are bad for you, too” argument is relevant, to a point. It exposes America’s hypocrisy and double standards in vilifying one vice while accepting, if not promoting, dozens of others. Yet it also doesn’t necessarily excuse how much damage smoking has caused Americans for generations—480,000 deaths a year, according to CDC estimates. To argue in the above fashion is a bit like asserting that Pol Pot isn’t all that bad, since Mao, Stalin, and Hitler are far worse.
Of course smoking, especially habitually, is deleterious for one’s health, and those who support the right to smoke should admit as much. My own father, who began smoking as a teenager, almost certainly acquired the cancer that killed him at age 63 from a lifetime of habitual, addictive smoking. I remember once when my father had an immobilizing surgery, my mother refused to buy him cigarettes. He went through withdrawal, and it was painful to watch. Moreover, second-hand smoke, as many studies have shown, can also be extremely harmful in large doses. Governments, which retain a responsibility to protect public safety, are justified in creating spaces for clean air and to limit passersby’s exposure to smoking.
The defense of smokers proceeds rather along a different tack. Smoking, despite its evils, facilitates something our modern culture has largely failed to replace: contemplation and face-to-face social interaction. To again cite Jack Taylor of the New Oxford Review, “musical scores have been written, calculus problems solved, and philosophical principles discerned by smokers while smoking. Good conversations have been had, and many a friendship forged, under rich clouds of tobacco smoke.” C.H. Spurgeon, Evelyn Waugh, G.K. Chesterton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, among many others, all smoked while plying their craft.
A First Things article from 21 years ago even cited Plato’s three parts of the soul (appetitive, spirited, and rational) that refer to the basic kinds of human desires as corresponding to cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, respectively. Pipes, the author argues, endure longer and emit a sweeter and more enjoyable fragrance for all in the vicinity, reflecting the highest form of human rationality. There’s a reason we associate pipes with professors, academics, and aged, seasoned contemplatives: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and, of course, Sherlock Holmes.
I have had some of the most important conversations of my life, often outdoors at night, while people were smoking. My father and I had many heart-to-hearts while he smoked, staring at the stars and enjoying the crisp air. In college and afterwards, I indulged many profoundly personal and contemplative conversations—indoors and out—while enjoying a pack of cigarettes, a couple of cigars, or my hardy pipe. Could these exchanges have happened apart from smoking? Probably. Would they have? I doubt it.
While the technocratic elite busy themselves with the technology that simultaneously entertains and isolates, the remnants of a bygone age make their daily (or hourly) pilgrimages down the stairs and outside, to stand, to think, and to smoke. They, like many outcasts, have plenty of time to reflect. Sometimes, when they’re joined by kindred souls, truly human exchanges take place, instigated by no other reason than a mutual desire to puff on cigarettes. As with the ascetic hermits of old, those smokers often retain the wisdom our society craves, nay, needs. As with religion, we may soon regret driving them even further from our public squares.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.