The case for smoking

Despite all the criticism, there are valid reasons for lighting up a cigarette

By Emmett Rensin

Despite the fact that a good half of the student body is hooked, I get pestered quite a bit with a single question: Why on Earth do you smoke?

It’s a hard habit to justify. As we’ve all heard since we were small, smoking causes 400,000 deaths each year in the United States. If you assume (like the federal government does) that every lung- or heart-related death in a home with a smoker is caused by secondhand smoke, that number jumps to nearly 500,000. That’s nearly 57 deaths an hour! And even if you’re spared death, smoking diminishes your lung capacity, yellows your teeth, offsets your digestive track, and invites all sorts of environmental and social criticism from those who are disposed to give it.

Yet nearly a third of Americans keep at it, lighting up every day, every hour, every time they go outside—including me.

Debating the facts is futile. There is, at this point, no denying that smoking is bad for you and that the little dopamine rush isn’t really worth it. It’s a cliché to say that we’re all going to die anyway and while not smoking might give you a longer life or a less painful death (though there’s no guarantee of that), it can’t be thought to make much difference. It’s going to be wretched for all of us in the end.

But really, none of these counter-arguments changes the facts. In a cost–benefit analysis, the non-smokers are always going to come out on top.

It’s difficult to justify because it is, by all modern lights, unjustifiable. However, in response to and on behalf of all those pestered by parents, peers, and strangers about their nicotine addiction, perhaps it can be explained.

This may sound a bit strange.

What smoking does for the smoker, as best I can tell, is to provide a known and constant want that can always be satisfied.

We all wake up, every day, with wants. We would like to pass an exam. We would like to get good news from that internship application. We would like to find we have enough money to eat well, to not run into that one kid, to have her call us just when there was nothing left to do. Some of what we’d like will come to be, but oftentimes it won’t. More frequently than we’d like, it’ll all fall through.

Smokers wake up, every day, and we would like to have a cigarette. It’s something that no matter what else pans out, we can reliably have. It’s a moment of comfort that, for all its vice, allows us to go through each day knowing that at least one thing will work out—and that is no small thing to know.

Of course, at this point the anti-smokers are enraged. “There’s nothing else you can want and have everyday?” they ask. “Something that won’t kill you, and me, too, if I stand too close?” And this is fair enough; indeed, if something else as addictive (and consequently satisfying) can be found that provides the same benefits, smokers everywhere might very well be open to it.

This isn’t a justification, after all. And it should vindicate those who always want an explanation of why smokers smoke, only to hear the concession that there is none to be had. But we persist all the same, and perhaps that is what is so infuriating about it. One could point to general irrationality, stubborn belief in immortality, or any number of larger ideas to try to explain the phenomenon. At present, the best that can be done is to provide some sort of illumination, something by way of explanation.

That being said, I suppose I’ll have to quit, one of these days.

Emmett Rensin is a first-year in the College.