Are Smokers Getting A Raw Deal?
Sir Ronald Harwood
Playwright and screenwriter
There is in Britain a smokers’ rights group called Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco). The name tells you a lot. But are there people who want to be free to smoke tobacco even if they don’t enjoy it?
Forest paid for a survey to be carried out by the Centre of Substance Use Research. The subsequent report, published in December 2016, had the title and subtitle, ‘The Pleasure of Smoking’ and ‘The Views of Confirmed Smokers’, respectively.
It’s rather a good report and I’m glad I discovered it for the insight it gives into what’s going on in some smokers’ minds.
The problem, the report says, is that over the last thirty years tobacco control measures have changed smoking from ‘being a popular, socially accepted behaviour to…an anti-social, health harming, stigmatised behaviour [and that] smokers…have become increasingly marginalised.’
There is a difficulty here, it seems to me, in referring to smoking as a behaviour. I suppose this word is used in the sense of the way in which one acts or conducts oneself. I am not just being pedantic (although I am sometimes accused of pedantry), because the whole argument hangs on this word. As readers of my blogs will be aware, I would characterise the activity of smoking as drug (nicotine) addiction rather than just a behaviour that one may engage in or not.
In a brief correspondence the first-named author of the report made the point that:
To explain or reframe [smokers’] accounts of their pleasures [in terms of relieving nicotine withdrawal symptoms] seems to me to largely constitute the imposition of one interpretive frame (nicotine dependence) upon the views of smokers…many smokers did indeed perceive smoking as being pleasurable in ways other than having to do with the satisfaction of any nicotine dependence. (Emphasis added.)
I’ll come back to this is a moment.
They surveyed 650 smokers who responded to an online questionnaire. Admittedly they were a self-selected group rather than a representative sample, but this didn’t matter for the purpose of the research. A significant finding was that ‘Nearly all participants (95%) cited enjoyment as their reason for smoking’ although ‘Over half (56%) of those surveyed said that they felt they were addicted to smoking.’
This implies there is such a state as an enjoyable addiction. Or is this a contradiction in terms?
Furthermore, ‘The majority of the smokers surveyed felt they were treated very unfairly (77%) or quite unfairly (14%) by government.’ I think they have a point. There is blatant inconsistency in the government’s attitude: cigarettes are on open sale, yet smoking is characterised as anti-social and disease-causing.
The claim of enjoyment as a reason for smoking is a recurring theme in the report. Smokers seemed well aware of the risks but nonetheless apparently decided to continue to smoke. Hence ‘many smokers themselves saw their smoking as a source of pleasure, a choice rather than an addiction.’ This is cited as one of the reasons that alternatives to smoking, particularly e-cigarettes, were not rated highly: they didn’t provide the same pleasure as ordinary cigarettes.
There are two assumptions that smokers and those in the tobacco control movement make. One is that smoking really is pleasurable, and secondly that if smokers are going to be persuaded to stop they will need a substitute for combustible cigarettes which will provide the same or a similar pleasure as smoking.
Both these assumptions are questionable.
First of all, what do smokers mean when they talk of the pleasure of smoking? And if we take them at their word, is this so great or important that it explains why they have a compulsion to do it twenty times a day, every day. Do they say, or think, forty minutes after smoking a cigarette, ‘By golly, that was marvellous! I must have another one!’?
It’s a strange kind of pleasure. There are many things I find pleasurable, for example eating chocolates. But I don’t eat chocolates every day and I certainly wouldn’t want to eat twenty in one day – I’d feel pretty awful if I did.
It’s also interesting that many smokers in the survey had withering criticisms of smoking cessation services and made the valid point that:
If stop smoking services are going to succeed…they are going to have to be prepared to engage with smokers on the terms upon which those individuals view their own behaviour. This includes being willing to recognise the pleasurable elements of smoking.
This comes back to the question of whether smoking really is pleasurable. If one engages with and encourages smokers to say what, exactly, is pleasurable about it, we don’t get very far. Is it the smell? The taste? The sensation of the smoke going into your lungs? Do you experience some real pleasure every time you take a drag? It will soon become clear this doesn’t make sense. What other activity do you feel compelled to engage in twenty times (or more or fewer) every day and feel a rising panic if you’re not allowed to? With a little open-minded discussion the reality soon emerges that in the normal sense of the word smoking is not pleasurable. Many smokers actually dislike smoking and wish they didn’t have to do it. Smoking seems pleasurable only because it gives temporary relief to the discomfort the smoker was in before he or she lit the next cigarette.
Some comments about the supposed enjoyment of smoking are very sad: ‘I enjoy smoking and there is very little in life that is enjoyable.’ ‘I suffer from lifelong depression and a sense of inadequacy. Smoking is the only thing that gets me through…smoking is my great source of comfort and peace. Without it there would be nothing.’ ‘My life has been difficult. Smoking has helped me survive.’
These unfortunate people clearly have serious problems. But rather than the methods currently being offered by stop-smoking services, a different approach could be tried: they could be helped to demonstrate to themselves that, rather than their lives being almost unbearable without smoking, if they could recover from the drugged state that smoking induces, they would feel much better without smoking.
Text © Gabriel Symonds