Saturday, May 31, 2014
Light 'em up, Boys!
Heed my advice if you wish to stay sane;
If you smoke, smoke Old Toby and not Mary Jane.
Twenty-seven years ago the World Health Organization declared May 31st to be “World No Tobacco Day”. What better way to celebrate the occasion, and to give the WHO and its parent organization the United Nations that ancient phallic symbol of disrespect, the digitus impudicus, that they so richly deserve than by writing a pro-smoking essay?
Just to be clear, it is not all smoking that I will be defending, merely that of the leaves of that excellent, indigenous-to-the-Americas, plant Nicotiana. This plant, long grown by decent, salt-of-the-earth farmers of the kind depicted in the novels of Wendell Berry and which has long provided comfort and temporary respite from the stress and pressure of the day to professional and working classes alike, has been the target of a decades long vilification campaign on the part of numerous organizations of bossy busy-bodies. Just under a century ago another plant, this one indigenous to Asia but which has been put to various uses in Western countries for millennia, was banned outright or at least heavily regulated in most countries of the world. The scientific name of this plant is Cannabis, its more common name is hemp, and its flowers and leaves too are often smoked as the drug marijuana. I will not be defending the smoking of this substance, just that of tobacco and I will explain my reasons for supporting the one and not the other as this essay unfolds.
It is not primarily a question of legality. Tobacco is technically legal, at least for those of the age of majority, although it is taxed to the hilt, its advertisement is forbidden, the companies that sell it are required to put grotesque warnings on their labels, shops that sell it are required to keep it hidden, and its use is prohibited in an increasing number of places and situations. The use of cannabis as a drug is illegal, except when prescribed by a doctor for medicinal purposes. There is currently a campaign to legalize its recreational use, a campaign that has received the prominent support of Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. Although Trudeau’s support is a very good reason indeed to question the soundness of legalizing marijuana, it seems evident to me that the prohibitionist approach to marijuana and other mind-altering substances has been the wrong tactic, one that has accomplished more harm than good. It needs to be said, however, that despite the fact that the prohibition of marijuana has driven the profit margins of its production and sale through the roof, enriching drug lords, and creating needless amounts of violence as criminal organizations compete for the monopoly of the dangerous but profitable black market, the outright prohibition of the drug is far more honest than the laws regarding tobacco, which are designed to demonize tobacco producers and harass and persecute tobacco smokers while still allowing the government to make money off of the trade.
When it comes to matters such as this culture is far more important than law. Decades ago, when the anti-tobacco zealots were just getting organized , when the most prominent tobacco prohibitionist was a vegetarian dictator with a postage stamp moustache who governed Germany with an iron fist while the Tory statesman who led the free world in its fight against this dictator did so with a huge cigar firmly clamped between his teeth, cultural attitudes towards tobacco smoking ranged from tolerant to supportive and tobacco was depicted positively in much literature and art. “A woman is only a woman”, Rudyard Kipling quipped in a poem, “but a good cigar is a smoke”. G. K. Chesterton wrote “Nobody who has an abstract standard of right and wrong can possibly think it wrong to smoke a cigar.” In the context in which he wrote this he told about offering cigars to two American journalists, one of whom responded as if he “were the Old Man of the Mountain offering him hashish that would turn him into an assassin”. Hashish is an alternative form of the drug produced from the hemp plant, thus Chesterton’s remarks demonstrate more than one way in which cultural attitudes have changed. C. S. Lewis, himself a chain smoker, mocked anti-smoking fanatics in his novels while J. R. R. Tolkien’s hobbits famously grew and smoked “pipe-weed” described by Tolkien as “a variety probably of Nicotiana.” Since that time, the technological media of film and television have replaced the written word as the primary vehicle of popular culture and in these media today, tobacco smoking is routinely demonized, while pot smoking is routinely glorified. That the cultural attitudes represented by Lewis and Tolkien are slipping away from us while those of the protest movements of the sixties and seventies of the last century have now become mainstream is in itself a reason to be dismayed over the turn our culture has taken.
Long before the anti-tobacco movement became the power that it is today, certain preachers would condemn smoking from the pulpit. These were virtually all Protestants of a kind that placed great emphasis upon basing its theology and ethics directly upon the Bible without putting much stock in how Christians, in the Great Tradition from the Church Fathers down to the Medieval Scholastics, interpreted the Scriptures. This, amusingly, led to dogmatic ethical positions that are not only not taught by the Bible but sometimes contradict its teachings. It was this kind of Protestant, for example, that preached against the consumption of and even started a movement to ban the sale of a form of beverage that was made by Jesus Christ Himself in His first miracle (John 2) and later commanded by Christ to be consumed in the sacrament He ordained and instituted at the Last Supper before His Crucifixion. There is, of course, no verse in the Bible, Old or New Testament, with or without the Deutero-Canonical writings, that mentions, let alone condemns, the smoking of tobacco. Preachers who condemned it from the pulpit, inevitably had to fall back on St. Paul’s comments in the third and sixth chapters of his epistle to the Corinthian Church against defiling the Temple of God. Of course the context of these remarks make it clear that the defilement St. Paul was talking about is fornication, and if one wishes to argue that the concept can be extended to include defilement by other means, it is equally valid to extrapolate what Jesus says in Matthew 15:11 “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man: but that which commeth out of the mouth, this defileth a man” to show that smoking is not included. Which is undoubtedly why the greatest Calvinist Baptist preacher of all time, C. H. Spurgeon, wrote to the Daily Telegraph saying: “I demur altogether and most positively to the statement that to smoke tobacco is in itself a sin…There is growing up in society a Pharisaic system which adds to the commands of God the precepts of men; to that system I will not yield for an hour”
Of course the contemporary anti-smoker does not base his ideas upon the Bible, a collection of writings that he usually wants to ban as much as he wants to ban tobacco, but rather upon the adverse effects of tobacco smoke upon people’s health. Now it is true that tobacco smoking has been shown to increase your risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases as well as your risk of strokes and heart attacks. There are all sorts of other facts, however, that one needs to take into consideration to have the proper perspective on this. Virtually everything has a risk factor of some sort or another. Exposure to sunlight increases your risk of cancer, but as is also needed for your body to form Vitamin D3, it would be foolish to live like Count Dracula in an attempt to avoid the risk of getting cancer from the sun. The extent of the risk created by smoking depends upon both the amount you smoke and the manner in which you smoke. The more you smoke, the greater the risk, and cigarettes pose a far greater risk than cigars and pipes. Cigarettes are made from processed tobacco with plenty of additives whereas hand rolled cigars and pipe tobacco are generally pure tobacco leaf, furthermore cigarettes are intended to be inhaled and the latter products are not. The supposed threat of “second-hand smoke” is somewhere between a gross exaggeration and an outright lie. (1) Furthermore, tobacco smoking, like exposure to sunlight, has its health benefits as well. It has been shown to decrease the risk of Parkinson’s and Altzheimer’s diseases (2) and it seems to be an effectual form of self-medication for schizophrenics (3). I emphasize these benefits because of the contrast with cannabis smoke which is notoriously bad for your mental health, increasing your likelihood of developing schizophrenia or paranoia, but there are other health benefits to tobacco. It is, for example, an anti-inflammatory which decreases your risk of certain types of osteoarthritis (4) as well as ulcerative colitis and other digestive disorders (5).
These health benefits are not, of course, the reason people smoke tobacco. People smoke tobacco because it calms them down when they are stressed out and anxious and because it makes them alert when they need to concentrate. Other recreational drugs are used for a feeling of psychological pleasure or euphoria which, however enjoyable it may be to the user, usually impairs his reason, judgement, and general ability to function mentally. The alternative smokes produced from the hemp plant are a good example of this. Tobacco, by contrast, does not impair your mental functions but rather, if anything, enhances them, while balancing out your mental and emotional state. It is, of course, addictive, but this, like its other negative effects, varies according to how you take it. Cigarettes are more addictive than cigars and pipes.
Perhaps you feel that such benefits do not outweigh the risks of smoking tobacco, even moderately and in the far less dangerous forms or pipes or cigars. That is a valid decision, but one that you should make for yourself and not one that the control freaks at the WHO should be making for you.
Therefore, I say feel free to thumb your nose at the World Health Organization and all the other health nazis by saying yes to tobacco this “World No Tobacco Day”.
(4) http://rheumatology.oxfordjournals.org/content/32/5/366.abstract; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15908236