Seeing through the haze: The truth about smoking

by on Tuesday, 15 October 2013 Comments


"...but as the world grew more and more affluent, laws and restrictions multiplied, discrimination increased, and somehow we lost our freedom. Why did this happen?"
Yasutaka Tsutsui, "The Last Smoker"

In Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui's 1987 novel "The Last Smoker", he depicts a fictitious Japan in which the anti-smoking movement has become powerful, leading eventually to the extermination of smokers. Even though this piece is classified as science fiction, the descriptions found in the novel, such as the unwillingness to understand smokers, their plight of being loathed, and the general state of discrimination against them are all too present in the real world.

Looking at the history of the last ten years for smokers in Japan, the progress of the anti-smoking movement has been moving along vigorously: from increasing the taxes on cigarettes, to including warning pictures on the packs of tobacco, to banning smoking indoors, all the way to the extreme of censoring and blurring out any image of cigarettes, the anti-smoking policies have little by little marginalised smokers by placing them on the fringes of society and the economic system. The discourse between smokers and anti-smokers is stuck, due to the limiting nature of these policies, in the awkward predicament of not being able to communicate; one side intensely defends its right to protect health, whilst the other can only silently swallow and cough clouds of smoke in dim alleys, enduring the attempts to enforce "compulsory quitting" through economic santions and restrictions on places to smoke.

In "The Last Smoker", there is a section that vividly and authentically presents the causes of this confrontation: "The reason why non-smokers discriminate against smokers, and manifest cruel tendencies, originates for the most part from a simple concept: Members of the anti-smoking movement don't smoke, so they severely lack compassion..." Thus, I have interviewed two young people, one a smoker and one not, in order to start off from two different life experiences. This is not an abstract theoretical debate, let us frankly discuss the topic of smoking.

Ji is a fifth year university student. He is one of the people who increased my knowledge of the world of smoking. By examining his smoking history, we can see a sample of the appearance and set of values of a smoker.

Ji: I started smoking in first year of university. At that time I wanted to do a double major, so I spent my whole time in the library studying, often till one or two in the morning. The friend I studied with at that time happened to be a smoker. He said: "You have a lot of stress, how about smoking a few?" I thought it was cool, so I followed him in smoking. At the beginning it was only one or two cigarettes, afterwards it got out of hand...

Me: Why did it get out of hand?

Ji: I think there is a social aspect to smoking. In my second year of university I met a group of friends. Before that I wouldn't usually smoke more than half a pack a day, but because we would often drink and chat in Neihu, people would smoke. In that kind of atmosphere, when you see other people smoking it makes you want to smoke too, you want to accompany your alcohol with cigarettes, so you eventually smoke more and more.

Me: People who don't smoke all seem to ask this: What does it feel like to smoke?

Ji: I think there are various different levels. The first is the physiological level; cigarettes have a calming effect, they make people more relaxed. This is at its most obvious when talking about the first cigarette one has after waking up in the morning, which will make you feel dizzy. But after you smoke for a while it is less obvious, it becomes more about the psychological effect. It is like a ritual; when you are doing something the cigarette acts as a dividing boundary. For example, you study to a certain point, then rest and subsequently go smoke a cigarette.

Me: So is it a ritual that can transform your frame of mind? Is there anything else to it?

Ji: Yeah! It looks cool! I see myself as cool, so I feel awesome. Also, I think that smoking embodies all of my different emotions: joy, and sadness can all be linked to smoking. The feeling of smoking is integrated into each and every one of your emotions. I think if you just look at the feeling of smoking as a chemical reaction and a way to become calm, you are not getting the full picture.

Me: Do you worry about your health?

Ji: Yes, so at the beginning I limited myself to just smoking one or two a day. I think smoking affects health, but working and resting outside of the ordinary can also do the same. The human body is multifaceted, it won't become bad purely based on one aspect.

Me: Do you stop smoking when people say that it harms your health?

Ji: I thin that argument is really weak. Maybe I am more individualistic, I think that smokers can assume the consequences of harming themselves through smoking.

Me: What is your opinion on second hand smoke?

Ji: I believe that people have the right to smoke, but if it affects other people, they should be limited within reason. For people who hate second hand smoke, the majority aren't concerned with health issues, but rather just hate the smell of smoke. Anti-smokers can be divided into two groups: the first is those that really hate the smell of cigarettes; the second is those that without even smelling it, want to chase away anyone they see smoking. This second type I cannot tolerate. I suss out the atmosphere before smoking. I don't stupidly walk over next to someone and start smoking. If, while I am smoking, someone walks over to me and says: "I think it smells bad when you smoke, I am worried it might affect my health." I will walk away to give them space. But if that person's attitude implies that they think I have done something wrong, and they want to hush me away, I will feel deeply offended and disrespected.

Me: What about those who object on health grounds?

Ji: When people object on health grounds, there is also often a moral foundation for it. They think this is a bad thing, but if you are going to make this argument, you need to bring forth the evidence.

Me: Let's discuss the topic of restrictions to smoking. What is your opinion on smoke-free zones?

Ji: I went to Japan before, and I like the way they do it there. They can't smoke outdoors, but there are designated smoking areas on the street and indoor businesses can decide individually whether they allow smoking or not. It feels less like a law completely banning smoking in public places.

Me: Other than the restrictions on where you can smoke, what's your opinion on the "Tobacco Health and Welfare Surcharge", which was introduced on March 24th, 2000?

Ji: I recall that a large proportion of the funds collected by the "Tobacco Health and Welfare Surcharge" went to subsidizing the National Health Service. However, if this was really the case, it doesn't fit in with the basic concept of the National Health Service, which is that everyone should share the burden equally.

Me: Is the intention to lower the amount of smokers?

Ji: Cigarettes in Hong Kong and Japan are very expensive, but people still smoke, so I think trying to regulate the amount of smokers through the price doesn't work. Because this is a basic need of certain people! It's kind of like trying to regulate supermarkets with prices; people still have to eat! In the end cigarettes will just become a black market good, so to do this will just achieve the opposite results, and lead to an underground economy. Because cigarettes are linked to all emotions, if the smoker stops smoking, then all of these are cut off too, I don't think it's possible!


Xiao She (henceforth S.), is my classmate in university. To most people, she is a goody two shoes that gets good grades, and wouldn't be associated with smoking. Through examining the views of this person who is so disparate from the stereotypical image of a smoker, maybe we can approach the issue of smoking from the opposite end of the spectrum.

S.: I am a third year student in university, I have never smoked cigarettes before. I am not curious about smoking, I think it is just a habit, so I don't particularly care why people smoke.

Me: So you have never thought about trying it?

S.: Not really, but I don't rule it out. If somebody were to offer me one, I would try it, but none of my friends smoke, so I have never tried.

Me: What is your conception on how smoking might feel?

S.: Like an addiction.

Me: An addiction to what?

S.: I think it's to chemical agents, and also the supposed positive feeling generated by smoking, as well as the ability to calm oneself. Perhaps when you start smoking, the addiction to the feeling is probably stronger than the pure chemical dependence, but after smoking for a long time, they both eventually influence each other.

Me: Do you abhor second hand smoke?

S.: I don't hate it, but I don't particularly like it. I am concerned about the adverse health effects second hand smoke can cause, but I don't think it is a source of pollution. The reason why second hand smoke is often pointed out is because Taiwan doesn't have a culture of smoking.

Me: What do you mean by it doesn't have a culture of smoking?

S.: I mean that smoking is not tolerated, and is seen as something not widespread and even abnormal. It's almost a "problem", a problem that can cause harm to the nation's health.

Me: So what is your opinion on the harm smoking causes to one's health?

S.: I think that even if smoking does harm one's health, this isn't the government's business, it is a personal thing. People should be allowed to make their own decisions about their bodies. There isn't really a reasonable argument to make against it. When it comes to second hand smoke, however, it is a case of the greater good over personal benefits, and this is where people start to worry. Frankly, I think the amount of damage done by second hand smoke is very small. Moreover, serious research needs to be put into understanding why this damage occurs, and I think the government hasn't done this so far.

Me: What is your opinion on people having to pay the "Tobacco Health and Welfare Surcharge" because smoking is damaging to their health?

S.: This is really strange. Suppose that "being healthy" was a choice; the government shouldn't interfere. However, if people's health is exposed to a hazard they did not voluntarily choose, the government has the duty to intervene. I believe the current system's logic is flawed in its cause and effect reasoning. You can't say that smoking has a definite correlation with getting sick; it's just that if we display these things together, most people will believe them, because they seem reasonable, but in fact they are not. I think the "Tobacco Health and Welfare Surcharge" should be dropped, to ease the superfluous economic burden on smokers.

At the end of the short story "The Last Smoker", after all the smokers have been hunted to almost extinction, and when only the protagonist is left, suddenly, society realizes that this "last smoker" is a rare living fossil. In the same way as so many species of animals that are devastated by man are later labeled rare and protected, the protagonist can foresee being hunted down as a novelty: to be isolated, his body studied, even to be exhibited as a sample specimen.

The smoking community in real life also lives under this "rare specimen" plight. In the name of policies protecting against the hazards of smoking, smokers have been labeled a nuisance. This label is often rationalized through medical evidence, but in fact there is a possibility that discrimination itself has influenced the medical research. As mentioned in the International Coalition Against Prohibition's 2009 Brussels declaration: "It is not smoking itself that leads to discrimination, but it is the warping and excessive representation of the harms of smoking by the government that causes it".

In today's world, many smokers are forced to linger in alleys, campus corners and balconies in order to "breathe"; this is not a victory of a moral and healthy society. In the end, from the place we smokers occupy on the fringes of the economic system, all we can see is a form of restriction against people that are not understood, due to nothing more than the barest form of selfish discrimination.


Translated from the original Chinese by Daniel Pagan Murphy.

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