Is it morally wrong to smoke?

[This post originally appeared on the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics’ blog, for which I am a regular contributor.]


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 – been 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).

Brando Smoke

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?

Copyright Notice: I do not own the image used of Marlon Brando smoking in this post and retrieved it from Google. If you own this image and would like it removed, please contact me I will do so at once.