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An Unofficial Apology to Smokers

The antismoking crusade was ready to grasp anything that could demonize smoking, and in 1988 the US Surgeon General declared on his own authority that smoking was an enslaving addiction and that nicotine was a drug of abuse equal to crack cocaine. On its face the statement was and is preposterous, but the media loved its capacity to conjure anxieties and to foster allegations of dark conspiracies.… No official apology or change-of-mind admissions are likely to be forthcoming, as they should.

Gio Batta Gori, Virtually Safe Cigarettes

Smoking always was a bit of a hassle: you had to remember to take your cigarettes with you wherever you went, you had to make sure you had a light, and you had to have money on you to buy cigarettes. But at least you could smoke pretty much wherever you wanted. Things have changed.

You’ve been run out of society, like a leper. Tough break. Modern-day smoking—in a society of closeted hedonists disguised as puritans—has become a game of hide-and-seek in which you, the smoker, are hunted down and corralled into a designated “smoking preserve” by guilt-tripping public health crusades.

While Gio Batta Gori, the Health Policy Center epidemiologist and former tobacco-industry consultant quoted above, appears to call for an apology to the tobacco industry, we feel that the only apology necessary is owed to you, the smoker. This is an offer of apology to you. We feel that you have been treated unfairly, and we wish to make amends.

Remembering the First Casualties of Antismoking Crusades

It is ironic that we know so precisely how Western smoking got its start: “On 6 November 1492, two members of Columbus’s crew returned from their adventures in the interior Cuba. They reported an encounter with the natives in which they had smoked dried leaves” (Gilman and Xun 2004, 9). We know the names of these first two Western smokers: Luis de Torres and Rodrigo de Xerez. We know what happened to at least one of them:

Rodrigo de Xerex packed some tobacco for the return voyage…and by the time he set foot again in his hometown of Ayamonte, in southwestern Spain, he was hooked.… As the only man in town, and probably on the entire European landmass, so addicted, he was [an] offensive…sight to his friends and neighbors.… The Spaniards could not understand what had happened to dear old Rodrigo on that voyage to the Indies.… They decided after a while…de Xerex had become possessed by the devil on his journey.… The citizens of Ayamonte discussed the matter among themselves and decided there was but one course to take: report the evildoer to the Inquisition.… The Inquisitors, as was their way, showed little mercy” (Burns 2007, 19).

As you can see, the antismoking crusades are as old as Western smoking itself.  So, let us take a moment to remember Rodrigo de Xerex, the first documented casualty of misunderstanding around smoking. And while we are at it, let us also remember countless smokers all around the world who suffered for their coping choices. Let us remember Russian smokers, who, under seventeenth-century Czar Michael Fedorovich, were “whipped with leather thongs until bloody,” had their noses slit, and were either exiled or beheaded (ibid., 41). Let us pay tribute to Turkish smokers, who were hunted down and beheaded on the spot in sting operations by seventeenth-century health zealot Murad the Cruel (Burns 2007).

Let us bow our heads to the smokers in China and Japan who were similarly executed or had their property confiscated. Let us atone for the Hindustan smokers, under Mogul Jahangir, who had “their lips slit so that a pipe would never again rest comfortably between them” (ibid., 42), and for Middle East smokers, who, under Shah Abbas, had molten lead poured down their throats for smoking in public. Let us, once and for all, recognize that smoking crusades achieve nothing but extremism, social stigmatization, and cruelty. We apologize for this unfortunate history of punishing fellow human beings who happened to make different coping choices than we did.

Thank You for Your Tax Support

In the book Tobacco and Smoking: Opposing Viewpoints, A. O. Kime (2008, 85) notes: “[S]tates are infringing on human rights by singling out a minority for higher taxes. Flush with victory over the tobacco companies, the states then began another attack, this time on the smokers themselves, by increasing taxes on tobacco to a punishing degree.”

As a smoker, you have been financially scapegoated. You see, “the states have turned smokers into taxpaying captives,” and in case you didn’t realize, this kind of “unequal taxation amounts to subjugation” (ibid., 87). Indeed, “…smokers in some states pay more in taxes on cigarettes than in state income taxes, which is a polite way of saying smokers are forced to pay twice as much in state taxes as nonsmokers” (Bast 2008, 95). With all this in mind, we’d like to apologize on behalf of the country for this financial persecution of your personal coping choice.

Yes, You Have the Right to Smoke

Constitutionally, you have the right to smoke. Smoking is but one of an infinite number of ways in which a human mind tries to take care of itself. Thus, smoking is but one way to pursue well-being (through chemical coping). In the United States you happen to have a constitutional right to do so. Just because smoking is hazardous to your physical health doesn’t mean it should be illegal.

David Hudson Jr., author of Smoking Bans, aptly writes (2004, 47), “Many legal activities in society are dangerous, including riding a motorcycle, skydiving, eating fatty foods, and even working too hard.… Some people believe that state restrictions on smoking amount to a form of ‘legal paternalism’ that infringes on the fundamental right to liberty enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.” We apologize for our society’s continued attempts at prohibition-style public health policies. We apologize for these misguided and myopic attempts to take away your personal freedom.

You Are Not a Menace to Nonsmokers

John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859 (21–22): “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” What this means is that you are entirely well within your communal rights to do whatever you wish to your own health as long as it doesn’t harm the health of others. This point, of course, brings the issue of so-called secondhand smoke into focus.

In case you didn’t know, experts don’t agree on the issue of secondhand smoke. For example, David Hudson Jr. (2004, 47) writes: “The EPA study on secondhand smoke is questionable.… The case against secondhand smoke…has been questionable. Some studies have found little, if any, statistical association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. A federal judge ruled the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 report classifying secondhand smoke as a carcinogen was deeply flawed.” Hudson concludes: “[T]he push for smoking bans infringes on individual freedom of choice.”

Whether or not secondhand smoke is dangerous, one thing is clear: society has crossed the line in suggesting that you are a menace to society. So, once again, we apologize: in your attempt at self-care, you never meant to hurt anyone, and it is simply inappropriate for us, as a society, to keep harassing you as if you were evil. You aren’t.

No, of Course, You Are Not a Child

We also wish to apologize to you for the patronizing way in which the antismoking crusade tried to squeeze “big tobacco” at your psychological expense. You see, in an attempt to make big tobacco pay, the litigators and public health wonks tried to blame inanimate tobacco for your smoking habit.

In his online article “Smoking Right and Responsibility,” Jeffrey Schaler (1997) writes: “Tobacco caused them to smoke, they claim, as if tobacco had a will of its own… This doublespeak contradicts the scientific evidence: smokers quit all the time—when it is important for them to do so.” Elsewhere he adds: “The price of one’s freedom in a free society is responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions.… We cannot increase freedom by decreasing personal responsibility. That’s the road to serfdom.”

You see, using the disease model, antismoking crusaders have psychologically sold you out by suggesting that you are not responsible for your smoking habit. By convincing judges and juries, TV audiences, and smokers themselves that tobacco made you do it, these misguided do-gooders have belittled your sense of autonomy and doubted your capacity for self-determination.

Of course, you aren’t a child; you can read warning labels, so you know perfectly well that smoking is dangerous to your health. Of course, nobody holds a gun to your head and demands that you smoke. So, we apologize for all this patronizing silliness: it is you who developed a smoking habit, and it will have to be you who quits this habit. You know it, we know it, big tobacco knows it, and every reasonable mind knows it. We, once again, apologize to you for yet another misguided attempt to rope you in as exhibit A of collateral damage.

We are sorry that both the culture at large and the treatment community tried to sell you on the idea that you are a powerless child who is incapable of self-determination. You gave us way too much benefit of the doubt when we asked you to surrender your will (with our half-baked disease-model conceptualizations). You were never powerless in the first place.

You Are Not Irrational

Finally, we would like to apologize for treating you like an idiot. To see what we mean, consider the following opening paragraph by none other than the former surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, in the foreword of 7 Steps to a Smoke-Free Life (1998, v), by Edwin Fisher Jr.: “When you think about it, smoking is a strange habit: setting fire to something you then put in your mouth, breathing into your lungs the pungent smoke from chopped-up brown leaves, smoke that makes you and your house smell bad, smoke that will eventually shorten your life.It doesn’t seem to be something that most thoughtful adults would choose to do.” How’s that for a first-page welcome from the former surgeon general?

Dr. Koop seems to think that you are a thoughtless child (as opposed to a “thoughtful adult”) who plays dangerous games with fire and stinks up his home. Nice bedside manner, Doc!

Just because Dr. Koop doesn’t get it doesn’t mean you are a kook. The same disrespectful tone jumps out of every other book. The authors of The Smoking Puzzle (Sloan, Smith, and Taylor 2003, 25) make essentially the same point but with slightly more finesse: “Smoking is an especially hard choice to align with rational behavior.” The message here is: smoking is irrational, and so are you, the smoker. What is irrational is the failure to understand the most basic axiom of human behavior: if a behavior is chosen, it is because there is a perceived benefit, which is the very rationale behind it. A behavior with a rationale behind it is a rational behavior; is it not?

So, once again, we wish to apologize to you, the smoker, for society’s continued failure to appreciate the very real reasons behind your smoking. You are not an idiot, and we are sorry that we, as a culture and a treatment community, insinuated that you were. Just because you haven’t yet developed reasons to quit smoking doesn’t mean that you didn’t have your reasons to start smoking and that you don’t have your reasons to continue smoking. Our cultural failure to see that is what’s irrational.

Quit to Stand Up for Yourself

One thing is painfully clear: there will be no official apology, neither from the despicable “big tobacco” nor the righteously zealous “big recovery.” The reality is that, as a smoker, you are a member of the new underclass. Unfortunately, antismoking crusades have become antismoker crusades, and it is highly unlikely that this psychologically toxic cultural climate will change anytime soon.

What this means is that you will continue to overpay taxes, you will continue to pay the salaries of public health wonks who built political careers by demonizing your coping choices, and you will continue to be constitutionally disenfranchised. As we see it, your best option to stand up for yourself is to quit smoking, thus removing yourself from this artificially constructed underclass.

[While as a clinician I am anti-smoking, I am pro-smoker.  Meaning: I am against demonizing smokers and for helping them quit with respect and compassion.  (Pavel)]

Resources: Smoke-Free Smoke Break: Stop Smoking Now With Mindfulness & Acceptance

Green smoke photo available from Shutterstock.

An Unofficial Apology to Smokers

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the author of 7 mindfulness-based self-help books. Several of his books have been translated into Chinese, Dutch & Portuguese. Somov is on the Advisory Board for the Mindfulness Project (London, UK). Somov has conducted numerous workshops on mindfulness-related topics and appeared on a number of radio programs. Somov's book website is and his practice website is

Marla Somova, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the co-author of "Smoke Free Smoke Break" (2011).

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APA Reference
Somov, P. (2012). An Unofficial Apology to Smokers. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Mar 2012
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