Dear Joseph,
I know smoking is bad, but am I a bad person if I smoke? A lot of people seem to think so. It's legal to smoke in restaurants in my state, but when I light up, you should see the looks I get. People pointedly ask me to move to another table, or actually turn around and scold me. Even my friends think it's a moral failing. What's your opinion?
--Guilty Smoker

Dear Guilty Smoker,
Smoking is a self-destructive habit. There's a good chance it will take years off your life, and thereby cause you and people dear to you great pain. Having said that, I find the demonization of smokers that is so common today to be excessive and, on occasion, cruel. And I use the word "cruel" advisedly. Just a few years ago, the California Department of Health Services produced a television ad asserting that secondhand smoke causes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The SIDS Alliance sent a letter to the Department of Health Services protesting the ad, since there is no compelling evidence to document this assertion. The cruelty of such an ad was underscored at the time in an essay by Dennis Prager ("The War Against Tobacco and America's Broken Moral Compass," in The Prager Perspective newsletter): "For any parent who smoked and lost a child to SIDS, a largely inexplicable child killer, this ad, charging them with the killing of their child, can only be described as devastating.. One can only imagine the effect on couples who lost a child to SIDS and who believe this television ad - the guilt felt by the smoking parent for killing his or her baby, and the anger felt by the non-smoking parent at the other parent."

The reason I emphasized in my opening sentence that smoking is self-destructive and not destructive of others is because there is ample reason to believe that the damage caused by secondhand smoke has been vastly exaggerated. Therefore, smoking doesn't make you a bad person any more than eating too many sweets or not exercising make you a bad person, even though such behavior might well shorten your life. What's next? Are we going to start calling people who sleep too few hours at night evil? Perhaps we should, since a lack of sufficient sleep definitely increases the likelihood of one getting into a car accident in which others might be injured or killed. What about people who drink alcohol? Are they bad people, given that a small but significant percentage of people who consume liquor end up doing very evil things - which, by the way, is not the case with smoking. As Prager observes: "If all alcoholic products were miraculously removed from earth, the amount of rape, murder, child abuse, and spousal beatings would plummet, and no child would ever again suffer the permanent debilitating effect of having been raised by an alcoholic parent." If, on the other hand, all tobacco products disappeared, all these other social evils would continue unabated, since smoking tobacco doesn't cause social evils. It therefore does not make sense to call someone who smokes a bad person.

On the other hand, because smoking is so likely to harm smokers, I would regard a person who participated in an ad campaign to convince non-smokers, particularly minors, to start smoking to be doing something evil. I also think it wise for parents to draw up contracts with their children to pay them a certain amount of money - and it should not be a trivial sum - if they reach the age of twenty-one without taking up this addictive habit: Research shows that people who don't become addicted to cigarettes by twenty-one are unlikely to ever do so. But I nonetheless remain increasingly annoyed at the campaign to demonize smokers as people without moral character or backbone. It has now become common in many schools to tell young children that nicotine is an addictive drug just like other, illegal, addictive drugs. Such misleading teachings have the effect not of making nicotine seem horrific but of making drugs like heroin seem not so bad; after all, many of these children see their parents smoke without otherwise acting irresponsibly or out of control. I suspect that children whose parents indulge in heroin and other illegal drugs have far worse memories of their childhood than do children whose parents smoke cigarettes.

If people complain about your smoking in a restaurant that has set aside an area in which smokers are permitted to smoke, I believe it is their responsibility to move, not yours. Obviously, if somebody is bothered by your smoking in a home you are visiting, or if somebody is visiting your home and complains about the smoke, common courtesy dictates that you not do so. Also, because many people bothered by smoke might be hesitant to complain, particularly if they are in your house, I believe you should ask visitors if it will bother them if you smoke.

At a time when the antismoking campaign has become so widespread, one point must be emphasized over and over again: Smoking is a health issue, not a moral one. I would therefore suggest that you try many techniques to rid yourself of this bad habit, except one: thinking of yourself as a bad person because you smoke.

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