If you 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.
Racism 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.
But 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.
Public 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.
Tobacco addiction has spawned smokerism—censure and rejection of those who partake in a nicotine habit, coupled with tacit assumptions about their weaknesses and failures.
When 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 smokerism lurking.
Endemic 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.
During 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.
Then 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 should!”
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.
In 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.”
Cigarette 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 former smokers.
“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.”
The tobacco companies apparently knew what they were doing, as the American Lung Association further illuminates:
“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.”
Mid-20th 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.
Many 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.
Cigarette 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.
Smokerism, 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.
According 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.
Cigarette 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.
Given 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?
According 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 cancer.
The OCR 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.”
Another name for the “stigma of smoking” is smokerism.
Racism 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 smokerism 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 cigarettes.
Smokerism 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 maligned group.