Is smoking morally wrong?

This week, I’ve been thinking about smoking. Full disclosure: My name is Jim and I am a smoker. I have smoked for nearly a decade now – since around 2005 – and I only smoke menthol cigarettes. I am addicted to the sweet menthol smoke, where that touch of red fire at the end of a white stick seems so perfectly suited to almost any occasion from celebration to commiseration. I give up on average for a month or two a year, every year. I always come back, though. The reason I say this is to highlight that I am by no means one of these dour-faced moralizers, condemning smokers for their ‘filthy habit’. Like a snot-nosed child, it may be filthy, but it’s my filthy habit. Most efforts to encourage people against smoking focus on the idea that smoking is personally damaging: it causes illness and death, it costs a lot of money, it harms others, it litters the environment, and so on. This week, however, I’ve been thinking about whether the real concern is that smoking might be morally wrong. (NB: I’m discussing where whether it is morally wrong, not whether it should be legally banned or whether people should have the ‘right’ to smoke – these are distinct questions).

Now, some might agree off the bat and say “Yes! Smoking is wrong. Like suicide, it destroys our bodies”. There might be a good argument for this, but I don’t buy it. This necessitates that our bodies are something pure – a gift from God, for example – and that harming those vessels is morally wrong. From a secular perspective, however, it’s not clear that this makes sense. That is by-the-by, however – what I am thinking here when I talk about smoking being morally wrong is whether smoking is wrong not (just) because of harm to an individual’s own body,  but due to its postion in a wider ethical context.

Around 50% of the entire world population (around 3 billion) live in poverty – that is, they live on less than $2.50 per day. More than 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty – that is, less than $1.50 per day. Statistics suggest from The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that around 870 million people – or one in eight of the world’s population – were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012. In 2011, 165 million children under the age 5 were stunted (reduced rate of growth and development) due to chronic malnutrition. Preventable diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia take the lives of 2 million children a year who are too poor to afford proper treatment. Presented with such figures (and there are many, many more) the disparity between those in the developing world and the Western world is unimaginable.

This is – unarguably – an ethical problem of titanic proportions. In the Western world, we have more than enough to survive, and yet so many more people suffer completely unnecessarily. The awareness that we – as relatively well-off Westerners – contribute to this can feel like an ethical slap in the face. Peter Singer – the world-famous utilitarian philosopher – argues passionately that we do have obligations to help such people.

What exactly we should do to help, however, can be debated. In particular, modern utilitarian thinkers like Singer have conceded that we should not give up everything to help others because such a radical position will actually be less attractive to others and likely lead to people doing nothing at all to help the developing world. For those in need, something is better than nothing. Many of us could give up to 50% of our income, but perhaps a more realistic and pragmatic call would be for us to give 5%. Regardless, the money that we do have can actually be justified in utilitarian terms: dressing professionally and keeping good appearances is often crucial for those working in the business sector who do donate money. Similarly, for academics, having up to date technological equipment and travelling around for conferences and academic visits is actually very important to sustaining a career that enables you to help the developing world (either directly through developing technology, or being a travelling philosopher and so on, or indirectly through raising earning potential which can then be donated).

What about smoking, however? Smoking – arguably – has no positive benefits for the altruist. With the rise in stigma attached to smoking and the increasing taxes on cigarettes, it is not clear that smoking could be justified in the same way that dressing smartly and keeping technologically up to date can be.

Perhaps the most striking way of thinking about this for me, however, is that people in the Western world pay increasingly large amounts of money to engage in a habit that is directly killing them. That is, instead of donating money to help relieve completely preventable illnesses facing children and adults in the developing world, smokers choose to spend their money on something that is killing them.

Smoking, unlike many other choices in expenditure for those in the West, can be seen to perfectly highlight the moral problem of our world: there are some people with enough money to spend it on something that unequivocally harms – and likely kills – them, while there are a much greater number for whom every day is a struggle. On one hand, we have people struggling to survive. On the other, we have people paying to …. die?

As a smoker, this causes me a lot of psychological distress. I do give 10% of my income to the most effective charities already, and try and justify smoking to myself as a luxury that comes out of my remaining 90%. Always, however, the question comes back and etches itself on my mind: how can I, in good conscience, continue to waste my money on something that is killing me while so many other people – just as morally important as me – struggle to survive?

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8 Responses to Is smoking morally wrong?

  • Dave Frame says:

    Aren’t there far simpler arguments to do with corporate responsibility that you could deploy?

    There’s a lot on ethical duties to support businesses/industries which have a positive welfare impact, and to refrain from supporting those that have negative impacts. The tobacco industry seems a crystal clear case in this regard – by buying cigarettes you’re a willing supporter of firms which knowingly create products which, when used in the approved way for their intended purpose, kill people at such a remarkable rate that the first question your insurer wants to know is “do you smoke?” If you oppose suffering, then surely you ought to oppose industries like this. While western rates of smoking have been stable or falling, rates of smoking in the developing world have been increasing sharply in recent decades. If you want to link duties not to smoke to global distribution of resources, the obvious way to do it is by refusing to support the companies who are deliberately expanding smoking into new, comparatively poor markets where the tobacco industry can more easily outgun public health initiatives (a move that amounts to pulling a fast one over people who don’t have access to information that would change their decisions).

    By comparison, I think the argument you actually make – that we shouldn’t smoke because someone somewhere is poor – is unconvincing. One problem with it is that it potentially applies to anything more than subsistence consumption. A morality that gives a very strict priority on resource use to the desperately poor leads fairly directly, when coupled with (observed) high fertility rates among the very poor, to the repugnant conclusion. The most obvious way to deal with poverty is to address it at the structural level through institutions, education, public health campaigns, etc rather than simply through focusing on cash transfers from rich to poor (or more cynically from rich to charity).

    [It's quite plausible that the single best thing 80khrs, Giving What We Can etc could do would be to bring pressure to bear on the disgraceful array of (primarily agricultural) trade barriers erected by Europe, copied by the US, which has several impacts - one is to keep Africa poor by preventing Africans from being able to compete in markets where they might be expected to do well; another is that this area (agriculture) has become a huge sticking point in trade liberalisation talks. Free-ish trade is the most proven way through which countries can pull themselves out of poverty. If you really care about the welfare of desperately poor people, rather than the mere theatre of charitable giving, then you ought to be organising yourselves around the policies that act as barriers to the development of the world's poorest economies, since over-turning a smallish number of decisions/policies would yield bigger gains than lots of cash transfers...]

  • Audrey Silk says:

    This is terribly convoluted. You know from the beginning that this is going to be a bumpy ride when you pause for the disclaimer that you’re not one of those “moralizers, condemning smokers for their ‘filthy habit’” and in the same breath agree it is a “filthy habit.” It doesn’t matter whose. The label itself is the moral judgement. Only those who moralize take care to add the pejorative “filthy” to “habit.” In fact they are more than happy for anyone to accept the extension that it’s the smoker themselves (people) who are “filthy.”

    Then there’s the reliance on only what the anti-smoker industry has fed you. Yes, smoking raises risks to health. To that I don’t disagree. But this great implication in this piece that every one who smokes is on their way to dying from it (“kill themselves”) is without basis. When it comes to lung cancer, to accept the statistics to date, only 5 – 10 percent of smokers receive that diagnosis. The other conditions attributed to smoking is a result of garbage in, garbage out. There are over 300 confounding factors for heart disease which makes it impossible to conclude it’s one thing over another in someone’s lifetime. But if you say you smoke, well then, it’s a simple check mark that that is the cause. Then there’s the failure in the discussion of age for those “smoking-ATTRIBUTED” deaths. Again, to accept the stats, the vast majority die at the general population’s median age of death and older. A life well lived (personal pleasure — another factor not considered in this piece) and dying at 80 or a life consumed with fear of existing incorrectly and dying at 80 is really what this all comes down to. The bottom line is this moral judgement that there is a “right” way to die and a “wrong” way to die!

    But most of all, where is the examination from the other side? From the side that has spent countless hundreds of millions if not billions already on a war (“war on smoking”), that when you cut to its heart, is about moral judgement! “Tobacco is legal but we don’t think you should be free to assume the risk.” You say the money spent to buy cigarettes is wasted money that goes “to die”? Please, most of the cost of a pack of cigarettes is government taxation and imposed as first a moral judgement (“sin tax”) and then to fund more anti-smoker measures and pay for all sorts of things that are hardly as altruistic as saving starving babies in third world countries. Golf courses have been built with that money. You’d have much more money in your pocket to give to the charity of choice but for this immoral tax forced on you. You need to justify nothing. It the moralizers that need to answer to you.

    • Airin says:

      Talk about convolution. You seem to completely miss the point of the advice of this so-called “anti-smoker industry.” It’s not that you just have a 5-10 percent chance of getting lung cancer or that smoking is one of the factors that contributes to heart disease, it’s that smoking creates a pathology that will eventually lead to disease be-it cancer, heart disease, emphysema, etc. Essentially the advice is your chances of living a healthier life and living a longer life is predicated upon you not smoking. Also, I don’t know where you get this idea that “the vast majority die at the general population’s median age of death or older” as the statistics do not bear this out. In fact, in the UK according to patient.co.uk, smoking decreases your life expectancy by 10 years and while 8 out of 10 non-smokers will make it past the age of 70, only half of long-term smokers will make it past that age.

  • GaZ says:

    This is immoral
    Smoking doesn’t necessarily “Kill” which is an exaggeration, yes it can be harmful when overused like many things. A ciggie is enjoyable and just a plant which has been smoked for ages you could say “God” gave us tobacco. Now shut you face your overthinking this. Now whether the Government conducts such immoral things is a better question.
    Don’t blame or ostracize smoking because if people want to enjoy a smoke then they will, if it takes a few years or even several years of ones life then so be t that is the risk.

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    I don’t think that your (Jim’s) argument works. Singer isn’t saying that it is morally reprehensible that you spend money on other things besides alleviating global poverty. His standard has always been that we ought to sacrifice whatever is not of comparative moral worth to a dying child, and this is defined very loosely. He says that we can save money for our retirements, pay for college, etc. So that said, we can still live up to our obligation of giving to charity (like you are) and not be condemned for the obligation to do more (thus his sliding scale of charity). What we can’t do is nothing. Since you’re not doing nothing, you should be able to smoke, just like you should be able to pay for your internet connection, or cell phone bill.

  • Meaghan says:

    At first, I thought you would mention smoking as being morally wrong, not because it harms oneself but because it harms everything around the smoker. Not only does it harm those around you when you smoke, but also trees, plants, etc. I was shocked when you mentioned that it may be wrong because of the inequality in it. I never once considered that smoking may be viewed as wrong because there are less fortunate people who could make use of that money. I found this idea very interesting and made me want to continue to read through the article.

    While reading this article, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if a smoker decided to quit smoking and donate all the money they would normally spend on cigarettes to some charities. Obviously, they would still be living a good life (probably even a better life as they wouldn’t pay to be damaging their bodies) as they would financially be secure, but they would be helping others to live good lives, too.

    Why is it fair that just because we were born in a pretty decent country, we have a better chance at becoming ‘successful’ and straying away from poverty? How is that fair to people in third world countries? I view it as a duty, almost, that comes with the privilege we were given to live in such a great country to look after those who can’t afford to look after themselves.

    Maybe this problem is to big for us. Maybe this is a situation where the government should get involved. Imagine what would happen if the government took even more control over tobacco products and a person was given a card that was swiped when they purchased the product so that they could only buy so much tobacco a month. Imagine what would happen to the health in our country. We would definitely be much healthier, would we not? Maybe then we can focus on the health of other countries even better.

    I believe that it’s a situation of putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. What if instead of being a successful adult working a good job with a nice home and a loving family, you were that poor, starving, uneducated child in Africa? I think we could all take a lesson from this. I believe that smoking is morally wrong because it’s greedy. We shouldn’t get to live great lives when there are people living awful lives. The least we can do is help.

    This was a very insightful article.

  • Fart in the Wind says:

    If you generally act morally and genuinely work to improve the well-being of others and you also plan to continue conducting yourself in this manner in the future, then by smoking (and likely decreasing your lifespan by some number of years), you’re decreasing the amount of good you do for others. By some of the standards laid out in the article, this counts as immoral. You should consider decreasing the number of cigarettes you smoke (and, thus, possibly increasing your lifespan) by “supplementing” with nicotine gum or e-cigarettes.

  • Mitch says:

    A great writen article Jim. I recently just quit smoking 15 days ago. I had been smoking for around two and a half years. There are always people who discriminate againts smokers, either becuase people think its gross, or they have nothing better to do than worry about someone else. It is someone’s personal choice to smoke, as mentioned in the article it is our bodies, we pay for the ciggerates and its our choice what to do with our own bodies. There are many people who dont smoke and don’t care if people choose to smoke, and it is nice becuase these people are fully aware that smoking is extremely bad for you, but recognizes that they can’t do much to stop you from smoking except saying I will support you if you choose to quit. Ethically there are many arguments, positive and negitive, towards smoking. Overall it is your choice to smoke, just like it is your choice to state your opinion.

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