Woman smoking a cigarette against orange sky
Photo by Nasir Yisar via Stocksy.

Smoking Is Bad, But So Is Everything Else

In a better world, we'd reject the moralizing instinct to deem some people worthy of dignity—and others, not—based on how they choose to cope with the circumstances of their lives.
February 25, 2019, 5:44pm

My years as a smoker have involved a lot of time spent doing two things: looking cool and lying to people about how I plan to stop soon. In the latter case, I’ve met many concerned questions about whether I’m going to quit with a shamefaced, breathless “oh I know it’s awful I really do intend to stop” or “I know, it’s the worst, I’m absolutely giving it up.” Lately, though, I’ve taken to responding, “Why would I?”

I’m not being flip—I’m genuinely curious.

To be clear, smoking is bad. If you are thinking about taking it up, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to reconsider. It is a filthy and demanding habit that will imperil your health and demean your sense of will. But the truth that lies at the cardiovascular disease–prone hearts of every smoker is that we fucking love it. I love sitting on my fire escape on a crisp fall morning, drinking coffee and having my first cigarette. I love the tiny thrill of realizing someone you would like to spend more time with also smokes. I love sneaking away from parties to spend more time smoking cigarettes with those people. I genuinely—and this is humiliating to admit, but nonetheless true—love the structure it adds to my day, as someone who often works from home.

Those are all the reasons I wasn’t going to quit back when I was still lying about my intention to give up cigarettes. I decided to be more honest because of how absurd I have come to find being questioned about quitting in the first place. The extended version of my new response in those moments: “Why, when things careen ever more swiftly toward disaster, would I abandon something I find so soothing?”

“But smoking isn’t soothing in a good way, like meditation or something,” as a health-conscious friend said recently. Her counterpoint betrays the seed of the more general discomfort people have with cigarettes: There are healthy coping mechanisms and unhealthy ones. Examine this dichotomy more closely, and you’ll recognize its influence on just about every moral judgment we make about one another. Smoking, or drinking, or eating junk food are deviant ways of caring for yourself. Even if occasionally allowed in the short-term, after a bad day or a breakup, they are no way to routinely live. But what exactly are we saying about what a life, or a person, should look like, or what a body is meant to do? Especially among people facing precarity at every turn, ruled by the most craven and stupidly cruel among us, on a not-so-slowly dying planet? Why do we demand that people cope with an increasingly infirm world in healthy ways at all?

One way I like to think about this question is by taking the premise that things are bad and getting worse very seriously. Let’s say we really are facing end times in some meaningful sense, and so engage in a popular thought experiment: How would you survive an apocalypse? There are people whose plans are well-thought-out and baroque. They will tell you about them, at length, at parties. Then there are people like myself who do not relate to the desire to survive it at all. The reason (besides the obvious fact that visions of life post-apocalypse always seem to involve a lot of running, which would be difficult for a smoker) is that these worlds are worlds devoid of comfort. Food would be limited, utilitarian, and bland; alcohol, a rare treat, if available at all. Strip away the dystopian fictions and imagine the day-to-day life of the survivor—what pleasures they might find in the world; how they might view their bodies in terms of how productive and efficient they can be. (Those people exist here and now, and they tend to post a lot on Instagram.)

Perhaps I’m inviting my own destruction by continuing to smoke, but I would argue a far more nihilistic outlook is that of people who already live like there is very little left to live for. I think being a smoker is just the right amount of cynicism for our moment: neither wildly optimistic that I should want to be healthy enough to enjoy a retirement unlikely to come, nor defeated enough to say fuck it and take up something harder.

I’ll concede that some people take genuine pleasure from physical austerity. I am not one of them. The calculus by which we prize longevity above all—sacrificing now for the sake of being around to sacrifice longer—has always struck me as rooted in denial: The thing that is guaranteed to kill us eventually is having a body. Wellness gurus and fitness freaks and detox tea–drinkers will meet the same end as me. It’s really a matter of what we do in the meantime.

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The meantime, aka, the time in which we are alive, certainly matters. The one compelling argument I can see to give up smoking now is how I choose to answer the question of who gets a claim on my body. Bodies have long been sites of political conflict, with the state taking an interest in the production of healthy bodies for labor. This is true for women in particular in very obvious ways. I feel no compulsion at all to keep my body healthy for such purposes. I do, however, believe that we can choose to use our bodies in service of others, to help or shield or comfort. All things considered, I would like to be around to do that for as long as possible. To not simply bear the world as it is, but work toward a better one. What would a better one look like? I have to imagine it’s one in which we reject the moralizing instinct to deem some people worthy—and others, not—due to the circumstances of their lives and how they choose to cope with them. After all, it is for the smokers, the drinkers, and the entire disgusting, smelly lot of us that we must also insist on dignity, including for everyone who is coping in the only ways they can.

If that sounds like an elaborate justification for my own bad behavior—well, this is a personal essay, and that is the work they do. I’ll probably quit smoking eventually. Not because I plan to submit to a regime of wellness, a politics that asks me to behave, or the questions of those who purport to care about me, but because I will throw off any number of commitments in the name of vanity, and smoking does cause wrinkles.