are a cigarette smoker, or if you smoked sometime in the past, do you deserve to
die faster? According to prevailing norms, you warrant an earlier death—a bitter
truth rooted in the shadowy realms of human experience.
holds that distinctions exist between biological groups, that members of a race
share traits making them less or more desirable participants in society.
Pervasive assumptions about racial groups have justified destructive treatment
of perceived group members for centuries.
ostracism and socioeconomic penalties have not been limited to racial groups.
Many other pejorative isms have been coined to describe insidious forms
of prejudice and stereotyping: for example, sexism, ageism, and antisemitism.
and media discourse revolving around isms rarely includes behavioral
choices. One dangerous but legal habit, however, has had vast destructive
impact on society, and stereotypes about those who are addicted have risen to
the status of an ism. The consequences have been deadly.
addiction has spawned smoker-ism—censure and rejection of those who
partake in a nicotine habit, coupled with tacit assumptions about their
weaknesses and failures.
someone tells you that his relative has just been diagnosed with lung cancer,
do you privately wonder or even ask if the relative was a cigarette smoker?
That’s smoker-ism lurking.
cigarette smoking is one consequence of social, business and political
policies—an intersection of three forces that combined to hook the World War II
generation en masse while contributing to widespread addiction among the
generations growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.
World War II, the U.S. government issued free cigarettes to GIs, compliments of
the major tobacco companies. Millions of nicotine-addicted soldiers returned
from the war to proliferate cultural acceptance of the habit.
during the 1950s and 1960s, a largely unregulated tobacco industry made tobacco
advertising omnipresent. Winston cigarettes propagated one of the most famous
television jingles of all time, imprinting it in the minds of young Silent
Generation members and Baby Boomers: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette
The Marlboro Man became an iconic cowboy hero on television,
billboards, and in magazine ads. A cartoon mascot called Joe Camel linked the
pernicious habit with the cult of ultra-cool. Many cigarette ads featured
endorsements from Hollywood celebrities, medical doctors, and even Yankees
slugger Mickey Mantle, a baseball player then admired as the paragon of
professional athletes. Major cigarette brands even sponsored wide-reaching,
multi-generational television shows—notably, To Tell the Truth and Gunsmoke.
1964, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released an Advisory Committee Report
on Smoking and Health, citing more than 7000 scientific articles that linked
tobacco use with cancer and other diseases. That should have been a real drag,
but many in today’s oldest generations were already hooked. And as governmental
oversight became more restrictive, tobacco marketing became more artful and
persuasive. For example, many Baby Boomers can recall buying candy cigarettes
as their first introduction to the “pleasures of smoking.”
marketing helped hook a sizeable percentage of young people growing up in the
post-war era, including members of the Silent Generation and Boomers, especially
males. How substantial? Recent statistics compiled by the American Lung
Association are choking:
“Today’s generation of older Americans had
smoking rates among the highest of any U.S. generation. In the mid-1960s, about
54 percent of adult males were current smokers and another 21 percent were
“In 2008, over 17 million Americans over
the age of 45 smoked, accounting for over 22 percent of all adult smokers. Nine
percent of Americans over 65 years of age currently smoked.”
tobacco companies apparently knew what they were doing, as the American Lung Association
“Early onset of tobacco use contributes to
greater rates of addiction, making adolescence a particularly vulnerable age.
Specific neurobiologic factors may contribute to adolescent vulnerability.”
Century popular culture and insightful marketing succeeded in glorifying the
cigarette habit, tapping into the inexorable influences of peer pressure and
identity-searching typical of teenagers, a life-stage when unhealthy habits are
least amenable to independent, farsighted judgment. Federal and state
governments responded with ineffectual regulatory measures: much too little,
much too late.
scientists today conclude that nicotine is one of the most addictive of all
psychoactive drugs. Nicotine actually scores higher on “dependence”—the
difficulty in quitting and relapse rates—than heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. This drug activates complex physiological and psychological mechanisms that
perpetuate smoking behavior with frequencies unlike any other addictive
substance. Pack-a-day smokers satisfy their cravings with 70,000 nicotine
“hits” a year.
smokers have always had the option to quit, but an accepting culture coupled
with addiction have often overwhelmed the will of individuals who would have
preferred not to start smoking or wanted to quit sooner when damning medical
evidence became public knowledge.
similar to its nasty –ism cousins, has engendered societal and economic
maltreatment of smokers. This is most apparent in funding allocations for
medical research to find cures for the most deadly of cancers.
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, malignant neoplasms—or
cancers—were the second leading cause of death in 2011. Lung cancer accounts
for more deaths than any other cancer. In 2012, an estimated 160,340 died from
lung cancer, representing roughly 28% of all cancer deaths. This is more than
all the deaths attributable to prostate, breast, and colon cancer—combined.
smoking is the most significant risk factor for lung cancer—a causative link in
about 85% of all lung-related cancers—and risk increases with quantity and
duration of smoking. The onset of lung cancer among current and former smokers
typically occurs between ages 55 and 65.
these facts, doesn’t it seem reasonable that research to discover early
diagnostic procedures and cures for lung cancer should be among the highest
funded priorities of the federal government?
to a recent article published by The Orange County Register, “In 2011,
the two federal agencies providing most of the research money funded breast
cancer research at a rate of $21,641 per death while spending $1,489 per lung
cancer death.” The article further cites National Institutes of Health
estimates concerning research grants for fiscal year 2012: NCI invested about
$712 million on breast cancer versus about $221 million in research on lung
article continues to reinforce the case being made here:
“The stigma of smoking
is largely to blame. Anti-tobacco campaigns have done their job too well,
leading many to see lung cancer as self-inflicted. That stigma keeps some
families and patients from speaking out, while corporate donors stay away from
the disease, and some scientists and policymakers question whether scarce
research dollars should be devoted to a smokers’ illness.”
for the “stigma of smoking” is smoker-ism.
denigrated many generations of American citizens who were from non-white
minority groups. In today’s emerging post-racial era, it is judicious that we
also contemplate how smoker-ism is damaging another class of citizens,
censuring their lack of character for not beating the addiction or for
succumbing to the habit during youth. By making individuals fully responsible
for this malicious habit, we deny the tectonic political, social, and business
forces that for more than a century combined influence to hook a nation on
Smoker-ism diminishes the potential for longer, healthier
lives among current and former smokers, significantly represented by citizens
over age 50. If the nation would have the collective resolve to spend more
research dollars on the most pernicious metastatic disease of our time, and in
proportion to the impact that disease has had on adult mortality, then many
more lives could be spared and greater social justice would prevail for a