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Note: The Fifth Column is a regular, independent column written by Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Opinions and comments are invited. Please send them to the PsychNews Int'l mailbox:


Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

"I am not advocating restrictions on personal choices that are currently legal. Smoking is a choice, but it is a bad one." (Sullivan, 1990, p. 1582)


The increasing attempt to hold tobacco companies responsible for the consequences of smoking behavior poses a greater threat to liberty in a free society than nicotine ever could (Hansen, 1997). Despite the fact addiction is not listed in standard textbooks of

pathology (because it does not meet the nosological criteria for disease classification), anti-smoking propagandists define the behavior of smokers as if it were some kind of epileptic seizure. Their attempts to absolve people of responsibility for their behavior are the obvious consequence. Yet attributing smoking entirely to addiction is not based on the facts and has inevitably led to a legal policy based on fiction. Here are the facts about smoking and responsibility.


There's a difference between what smoking does to a person's body and how smoke gets into his body. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in cooperation with the public-health industry and with attorneys who argue smokers get sick because they have "lost the ability to choose" not to smoke, clouds that distinction. Concurrently, these groups suggest a person's body (as opposed to the person himself) causes a particular vice and its consequences, i.e. smoking behavior doesn't exist apart from physiological processes. Nothing could be further from the truth.


While their intentions may be compassionate (Is compassion a body product like smoking, i.e. caused?), the net effect of their thinking is to reduce human beings to machines--chemical and electrical interactions, soulless animals--lacking free will and moral agency, the very qualities we characterize as distinctly human. And remember machines don't operate by themselves. They are operated by people.

Does a car "drive" the driver? Does a pencil "write" the writer? Does a body "run" the person? Of course not. People run their bodies, not the other way around. Yet those who assert nicotine addiction causes smoking are engaging in just such illogical thinking.


Consider the dangerous legal precedent that could be set by such thinking: If smokers physical addiction to nicotine causes them to smoke, one might just as easily argue rapists' bodies cause them to commit rape, murderers' bodies cause them to commit murder, child abusers' bodies cause them to abuse. What kind of world would we live in if those theories were upheld by the courts? If we attribute responsibility for the harm people do to themselves to physiological processes, don't we necessarily have to remove people's responsibility for the harm they cause

to others to justly apply the rule of law? And then we must remove moral agency and responsibility for good behaviors too: Heroism, courage and other virtuous acts such as loving and praying, academic achievement and creativity must also be viewed as having nothing to do with ethical human action. They're simply products of biology. We all know that's inaccurate reasoning.


Nevertheless, it is exactly the kind of argument used by people who are suing tobacco companies for injuries the plaintiffs may have caused themselves by smoking. Tobacco caused them to smoke, they claim, as if tobacco had a will of its own. Cigarettes, renamed

"nicotine-delivery systems" by the FDA, render smokers incapable of abstinence. Any reasons for smoking thereby become irrelevant.


This doublespeak contradicts the scientific evidence: Smokers quit all the time--when it is

important to them to do so. They moderate their smoking at will too. For example, a study of over 5,000 Minnesota workers published in the September 1996 issue of the American Journal of Public Health showed "a substantial proportion of smokers are low- rate users and suggest[s] that the proportion may be rising" (Hennrikus et al., 1996). This finding supports the idea that psychological factors play a part in smokers' decisions to smoke or not to smoke. It contradicts the claim that people become physiologically enslaved by nicotine addiction once they start smoking.


Moreover, studies published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) have long shown smokers can quit on their own (Fiore et al., 1990; Glynn, 1990). This finding undoubtedly upsets the manufacturers of nicotine patches and gum, as well as those who make money on smoking cessation clinics and programs. Indeed, these groups are economically

addicted to convincing the public smokers cannot quit on their own, that willpower won't work. So they spread the lie smokers have an addiction disease, caused by a physiological dependency on nicotine, one they can never manage on their own. They want the public to believe their products are necessary for curing the disease. Yet scientific studies have long shown that treatment programs for smoking addiction don't work for most people (Fiore et al., 1990;

Glynn, 1990).


Choosing to quit is a simple statement of intention. Whether people are heavy or light smokers has nothing to do with the ability to quit. The best predictor of smoking and cessation of smoking is level of education (Escobedo et al., 1990). Plaintiffs' lawyers in the numerous liability cases directed at British and American tobacco companies rely on public ignorance in order to make money. They know less educated persons on the jury are less likely to reason

out the facts and more likely to be swayed in their attitudes by "authorities" who obscure the difference between behavior and disease.


Most of us know people who smoked for years and then quit abruptly. Their bodies had adapted to nicotine and since they chose to quit, they did. Question: What do we attribute that behavior to? Answer: Free will.


And what of people who do not want to quit? Why explain their behavior using terms such as weak will and physiological addiction? Those people simply choose to continue smoking, even if a doctor or loved one has suggested they quit. They aren't suffering from a weak will. They have an iron will: They choose to continue smoking against medical advice. And ironically, they are often the ones who transform their iron will into an iron fist, demanding they be financially compensated for the consequences of their own behavior.


There's nothing particularly unusual about noncompliance with medical advice or blaming others for one's own behavior. Many people continue to engage in certain behaviors against medical advice. How many people continue to eat a high-fat diet when their doctor recommends against it? If they develop cardiovascular disease, will they blame McDonald's and Burger King for hooking them on hamburgers and french fries? Why not?


Smoking and quitting, like eating and dieting or exercising and being a couch potato, are matters of free will and personal choice. Yes, habits may cause disease--but habits aren't diseases in and of themselves. Cancer is a disease. Smoking is a habitual behavior. Moreover, likening a behavior to a disease seems especially cruel to people with real diseases. A person cannot choose to quit or moderate diabetes.


The price of freedom in a free society is responsibility for the consequences of one's actions.

Liberty and responsibility are positively correlated. That's a fact. People who claim addiction causes people to smoke say the two are negatively correlated. That's fiction. We cannot increase freedom by decreasing personal responsibility. That's the road to serfdom.




Escobedo, L.G., Anda, R.F., Smith, P.F., Remington, P.L., and Mast, E.E. (1990). Sociodemographic characteristics of cigarette smoking initiation

in the United States. Implications for smoking

prevention policy. Journal of the American

Medical Association, 264, 1550-1555.

Fiore, M.C., Novotny, T.E., Pierce, J.P., Giovino,

A., Hatziandreu, E.J., Newcomb, P.A., Surawicz,

T.S., Davis, R.M. (1990). Methods used to quit

smoking in the United States. Do cessation

Programs help? Journal of the American Medical

Association, 263, 2760-2765.

Glynn, T.J. (1990). Methods of smoking cessation--

Finally, some answers. {Editorial]. Journal of

the American Medical Association, 263, 2795-2796.

Hansen, M. (1997). Capitol offensives. American Bar

Association Journal, January, 50-56.

Jeffery, R.W. and Lando, H.A. (1996). Occasional

smoking in a Minnesota working population.

American Journal of Public Health, 86, 1260-


Sullivan, L. (1990). An opportunity to oppose:

Physicians' role in the campaign against tobacco.

[Editorial]. Journal of the American Medical

Association, 264, 1581-1582.



Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of justice, law and society at American University's School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.; an adjunct professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md.; and a member of the part-time faculty (psychology) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.


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