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Smokers are Horrible People, but Don’t Worry, They’ll Die Soon

How the electronic cigarette debate reveals lack of concern for the lives of smokers

Fifty years ago the Surgeon General issued a report revealing the extreme dangers of smoking. Since that time, the smoking rate in the US has been cut in half. Public health officials and anti-tobacco activists have fought tirelessly to reduce smoking related death and disease, and to keep kids from becoming trapped in a lifetime of addiction to deadly cigarettes. Unfortunately, after years of hard fought battles against smoking, many have become unable to differentiate between fighting against smoking and fighting against smokers. Smokers have become the enemy.

In recent years, as the decline in smoking has slowed, tobacco control strategies have relied more and more on stigmatization.  Framing smoking as an ‘anti-social’ behavior is a cornerstone of the movement. And it’s working. 

A 2011 Gallup poll revealed that one in four Americans automatically have less respect for a person that smokes.  Some employers openly state that they will not hire smokers. Non-smokers, who now greatly outnumber smokers in the US, seem to share the sentiment of the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies that “smokers should just grow a backbone.”

The problem with this sentiment is that smokers don’t continue to smoke despite the overwhelming risk because they are stupid, lazy or weak. They do it because they are powerfully addicted. Research tells us that if someone begins smoking as a teen they will likely be addicted for life.  This is especially alarming considering 88% of current smokers picked up the habit before their 18th birthday, when they were most vulnerable to predatory marketing tactics. 

According to numbers from the CDC, 68% of smokers want to quit and over half try to quit each year.  Only 6% are successful. More quit attempts are made in younger smokers than older, indicating that older smokers may have just given up on the idea of quitting altogether after many unsuccessful attempts.

Public health groups simultaneously send two messages. One is that tobacco companies aggressively exploit vulnerable youth, luring them into addiction to protect future cigarette sales. The other is that adult smokers are ‘anti-social’ pariahs that need to be shamed into quitting. So are smokers victims or are they villains? At what age are we supposed to stop having compassion for those addicted to cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes provide a unique lifeline to smokers, whose average lifespan is ten years less than that of non-smokers.  The battery-powered devices deliver nicotine, the most addictive chemical in cigarettes, while eliminating combustion, which produces the majority of the danger. Unlike traditional nicotine replacement therapies, they also address the behavioral side of addiction by mimicking the act of smoking.  Additionally, former smokers report that the variety of flavors available helps break the connection between smoking and nicotine, reducing or eliminating their desire to return to cigarettes. Public health officials and activists should be thrilled by such a promising opportunity to reduce smoking related illness and death.  

Shockingly, public health groups are among the most outspoken opponents to electronic cigarettes, adopting what harm reduction advocates call a ‘quit or die’ mentality.  A smoker must either stop using nicotine altogether or suffer the disease and death that comes from smoking.  Continuing to get nicotine, even from a much safer delivery method is unacceptable.  Especially, if it involves enjoyable flavors and rituals similar to smoking.

The fear is that electronic cigarettes will ‘renormalize’ smoking; threatening the stigma that the tobacco control movement has worked so hard to cultivate.  While the directors of both the CDC and the FDA have conceded that, for an individual, electronic cigarettes are safer than smoking, they continue to warn against them.

After years of working to stigmatize smoking it seems that many public health leaders have drank their own Koolaid.  As a result, the goal of the tobacco control movement has shifted from convincing young people not to take up cigarettes while trying to save the lives of current smokers, to a single-minded pursuit of completely eliminating nicotine addiction. Even if it means discrediting safer alternatives like electronic cigarettes and simply waiting for currently addicted smokers to die. 

Allison Taylor

Allison is an advocate for electronic cigarettes and tobacco harm reduction (THR).

12 thoughts to “Smokers are Horrible People, but Don’t Worry, They’ll Die Soon”

  1. Well done!

    As others have suggested, there is very little evidence to support the claim (constantly repeated and believed by virtually everyone on the planet) that nicotine (by itself) is “highly addictive.” People using patches, gum and lozenges don’t seem to get addicted. One advocate of NRT says, “Because the dose of nicotine is much lower than what a person would receive by smoking a cigarette, becoming addicted to NRTs is rare.”

    He’s right about it not being particularly addictive, but he’s wrong about WHY. He overlooks or chooses to ignore the synergistic effect of the other substances in tobacco smoke, coupled with the other things about smoking that smokers find pleasurable but which are not offered by FDA approved products.

    I’ve read several studies that involved trying to get rats and mice addicted to nicotine. (The call it “dependence,” as they know that “addicted” is not an easily defined term.) They have had a very hard time doing it. A VERY hard time.

    Having smoked cigarettes for 45 years and having read everything I can find, I anoint myself as an expert on smoking and smoking cessation. Every person who purports to regulate e-cigarettes should be an ex-smoker, or at least married to one. With the advent of e-cigarettes, I stopped smoking 2 years ago after trying every other method. Were it not for e-cigarettes, I’d still be smoking.

  2. You really wonder why there hasn’t been any comprehensive recent studies on the addictiveness (or non) of nicotine in isolation. I do know there have been studies on NRT addictiveness and have concluded not very addictive.

  3. It gets said a lot that nicotine is addictive, even “highly” addictive but I don’t think that’s ever been proven.

    Other than that… nice article, Allison! Something that needed to be said.

  4. There are two reasons for why many doctors and public health advocates are against E-cigarettes with nicotine – none of them health-related. It’s all about the money:

    1. The pharmaceutical industry has a huge influence in this area, and they don’t like E-cigarettes simply because they compete with Nicorette. The pharma companies will loose money, if E-cigs keep on spreading.

    2. Governments / states may loose money because of E-cigs too, since many quitters could lead to huge declines in state revenues from cigarette-taxes.

  5. Brilliant article! I have been guilty of demonizing smokers in the past, having never smoked, myself. You present a compassionate and intelligent view and I hope the FDA pays attention. Any product that helps so many people take steps toward improving their health should present no cause for a government agency crackdown.

  6. I also feel that nicotine is not the addictive part. I know many vapers who use 0 nicotine now. The addiction is the hand to mouth, and the act of inhalation.

    1. I think the activity- hand to mouth- and the habit of inhaling along with just something to do is half the story. I believe from personal experience nicotine is a least as addictive as caffeine and no more harmful.I am in recovery for alcohol and over the years have researched addiction science a lot. I am 58 from the age of 16 to 30 I cooked in restaurants. I would have a cup or 2 of coffee at work.I never made coffee at home-ever. At about age 30 I went to a halfway house for 6months. They had free coffee there so I drank alot each day-being to broke to buy anything else. Every since then I have been drinking 2 pots of coffee a day. I have switched to half caffeine coffee but cannot give up caffeine. When in my mid 40’s I quit smoking for 8 yrs.[I used nic gum for 2-3 months] At age 50 I started smoking again. Tried many times to quit over the next 7+yrs-nic gum-patches-I even switched to chewing tobacco for 2 yrs. 5 months ago I started using e-cigs and have not looked back! Studies show nicotine increases mental focus among other things. Reseach also shows long time smokerstobacco chew users nicotine receptors in the brain lengthen[get larger] and a small amount of nicotine use causes relapse. I now advocate daily for Electronic cigarette rights.

  7. The same could (should) be said of those addicted to much more dangerous and addictive drugs, such as crystal methamphetamine, or crack cocaine. The addiction to such drugs is strong enough that some users have no other choice but continue to use the substances. The addiction does not just subside when medically prescribed doses of “good drugs” are administered: the people who are addicted to such drugs are also physically and somewhat “emotionally” attached to how those drugs were consumed. This is, in a substantial way, the same as a person addicted to the many known chemicals in traditional cigarettes. The heating up and inhalation of the drug is half of what the user has grown accustomed to, and/or enjoys. The experience is half of the addiction for many. Even if it is purely a chemical reaction, human beings apply emotion and give meaning to actions and events in their lives. E-cigarettes have been successful because those who have enjoyed smoking over the years do not feel like “quitters”, which is a negative psychological experience, even if a giant leap forward in sustaining and enjoying their own lives.

    I was a smoker for 10 years. I switched to vaping 6 months ago, and have not looked back. I am happy as a vaper. I look and feel healthier because of it. Taking away my choices by requiring the products I am “allowed by the FDA” to buy, will only hurt those wishing to make the switch from smoking to a healthier habit, and will leave me with lesser quality (corporate, not small business) and Big Tobacco products (which I do not wish to pucrchase, for obvious reasons). If there is a public health point in the recent and ongoing actions of FDA, I cannot see it.

    1. *Edit*

      Paragraph 2:

      “Taking away my choices by requiring [that] the products I am “allowed by the FDA” to buy [must be approved by FDA in a costly and timely waiting game of data collection, testing, and permit-writing], …”

  8. “nicotine, the most addictive chemical in cigarettes”

    I disagree with just this one point; Nicotine by itself is not the most addictive part of cigarettes. Nicotine has not caused addiction or withdrawal when used to treat disease. Apart from that, I’ll give you a standing ovation. Nicely done.

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