Magazine | November 25, 2019, Issue

Destroying Your Lungs to Own the Libs

(Roman Genn)
There is nothing inherently conservative about cigarettes

There’s something in the air among conservatives these days. Maybe you can smell it, too: cigarette smoke.

All serious modern scientific investigations have proven what was first suspected as early as the 17th century: Smoking is bad for you. Yet more than 400 years after the first anti-smoking literature appeared, cigarettes are having a bit of a moment on the right. Unable to invoke long-disproven myths about the “benefits” of cigarettes, however, their modern conservative fans have instead begun making what they consider a countercultural case for smoking. Call it “taking up smoking to own the libs.” But their argument is just as defective as the old one, if not more so.

Cigarettes’ modern fans like to cast their enthusiasm as a populist attempt to stick it to the elites. In The Spectator earlier this year, Will Lloyd wrote: “That our elites have left smoking to the cast of Hillbilly Elegy in order to embrace meditation and veganism makes some sense medically but not philosophically. It is yet another example of the way in which they manage to combine faddy lifestyle choices with a glib moral certitude.” And more recently, also in The Spectator, Bill McMorris explained that smoking began to be banned from indoor public spaces simply because, “in the 1980s, the wealthy decided that the right to smell nice [should] not be impeded.” But these smoking fans are putting the carton before the horse.

It’s dubious that smoking detractors are elites and smoking proponents are not. (What are right-wing journalists who publish in national magazines?) Smoking’s advocates rarely attempt to prove the claim. Indeed, it would surprise the tobacco companies rich enough to have coughed up (so to speak) $246 billion to state governments in a landmark 1998 settlement that was the culmination of decades of legal action against their product. Even if every smoker were poor, the wealth of these corporations would make defending cigarettes a curious task for anti-elitists. And even if smoking is more common among the less wealthy, that is hardly a reason to smoke. Children are born out of wedlock at a higher rate below the poverty line, but The Spectator has yet to publish a paean to the populist virtues of unprotected premarital sex.

Regardless, the virtual abolition of smoking indoors benefits rich and poor alike, preventing smokers from imposing their habit — never truly practiced in isolation, given its inherent externality — on those who didn’t consent to inhale its odious odor. While McMorris may miss smoke-soaked bars, smoking bans improve the health of the workers who serve him no less than that of his fellow patrons.

By its nature, smoking should be an elite pastime. With less capacity to seek treatment and make lifestyle choices that mitigate the harm wrought by cigarette smoke, those in the lower classes face higher rates of smoking-related illnesses, from both smoking and secondhand smoke. Only the well-off can truly afford not just cigarettes but also the higher insurance premiums, the gym memberships, the healthy food options, and everything else needed to offset smoking’s effects as much as possible. And let’s not forget the medical care necessary to save their lives. Smoking’s right-wing defenders invoke faux class solidarity, but they offer nothing more than populist chic.

This points to a weakness in another argument often made by smokers: Smoking is democratic, they say, uniting different classes in a common passion. The argument ignores . . . everyone who doesn’t smoke. McMorris writes of a D.C. bar that allows smoking: “It brings enemies together. GOP lobbyists sit beside Democratic senators, united in their consumption of forbidden taste. Rudy Giuliani stops by every now and then; so does the Revd Al Sharpton.” Smokers like telling stories of either sharing a cigarette with or bumming one from a stranger. But in a closed environment, this is hardly democratic. It is, instead, an enshrinement of smokers as a privileged class whose addiction — and, yes, cigarettes are addictive — deserves special consideration. Secondhand smoke’s known harms include an assortment of pulmonary and cardiovascular ills, such as lung cancer and heart disease. To place one’s enjoyment of an unnecessary luxury item over the well-being of others is self-serving, and arguments for doing so stink as much as the dive bars these smokers frequent.

Attempts by smokers to associate cigarettes with an older, superior kind of masculinity also stink. It may be true that the definition of manhood is changing for the worse, but, if so, the decline in smoking has nothing to do with it. Smokers absurdly invoke the aura of John Wayne (as The Week’s Matthew Walther does), or imagine that smoking is somehow the source of an earthy, commonsense, and, nowadays, contrarian wisdom (as Lloyd speculates of the French writer Michel Houellebecq). But Wayne’s manliness (or the perception thereof) came from the reins of a horse, the barrel of a gun, and a pair of fists. Lung cancer caused Wayne to lose his left lung and two ribs, something Wayne himself attributed to his six-packs-a-day habit. His smoking also led to a chronic cough that caused him to burst several stitches and rupture his lung tissue, nearly killing him, when he was recovering from lung surgery. And if Houellebecq’s contrarianism came from cigarettes, then most of his fellow French intellectuals would be equally wise. Smoking cigarettes will not make you manlier or smarter just because manly or smart people sometimes smoke them. In fact, smoking inhibits masculinity to the extent that it reduces the capacity for physical exertion. 

Unsurprisingly, smokers downplay the health concerns. Here they are on their weakest legs (possibly owing to inhibited blood flow). Unable to deny the sheer unhealthiness of cigarettes, enthusiasts try to transform healthiness into its own vice. This particular argument has a pedigree on the right. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “to have a horror of tobacco is not to have an abstract standard of right; but exactly the opposite. It is to have no standard of right whatever; and to take certain local likes and dislikes as a substitute.” To Chesterton, concern for one’s health was a poor substitute for morality — never mind that the two are not mutually exclusive, or that there might be a duty not to harm oneself. We shall not dwell on the fact that Chesterton weighed 286 pounds as an adult and died at age 62. 

For his part, Lloyd cites Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey as an example of a health nut whose meditation and other health-conscious practices are a replacement for smoking. Once, such a person supposedly “would have smoked 40 or 50 or 60 cigarettes a day instead.” He “would have ended up dying earlier,” Lloyd admits, “but the effects of nicotine — regular hits of dopamine, raised alertness, speedy reaction times and powerful anti-anxiety and antidepressant qualities — would have given him everything he gets from meditation and more.”

Similarly, Walther’s main sentiment when the health-conscious Paul Ryan replaced the cigarette enthusiast John Boehner as speaker of the House was contempt for Ryan’s healthy lifestyle. Writing for the Washington Free Beacon, Walther alleged: “This is a guy who is obsessed with health and exercise, the kind of man who can tell you exactly how many calories he ate last week. He probably owns a $200-plus bicycle helmet.” Walther’s reaction to a description of Ryan’s exercise routine was simply “Ugh.” Smokers cannot honestly claim that their habit is healthy, or that being healthy is only for the wealthy. That they instead devalue health shows their argument’s weakness.

It also suggests a certain libertinism. Take Ryan again. His healthy lifestyle is both rational and deeply personal, driven by a family history of male heart attacks at a young age and a desire to see his children grow up. That was something his father, who died at age 55, when Ryan was 16, did not do. But even in less dire cases, to abjure concern for one’s health — let alone to encourage others to do so — is deeply irresponsible. 

Were they intellectually consistent, Walther and those like him might not make such arguments. Walther is no fan of the conservatism of recent decades, excoriated as “the dead consensus” in a letter published in First Things that he signed. It lambasted conservatism’s ostensible “fetishizing” of “individual autonomy.” Yet smoking’s modern conservative proponents are indulging in the fetish. They invoke their freedom to choose wrongly, which Walther would surely reject in any number of other contexts, and prize their individual concerns above the needs of family, community, and the many forms of civil society that exist outside of dive bars.

It is perhaps a fool’s errand to try convincing these conservative smokers to quit. When it comes to their smoking, they don’t care about others, or even properly about themselves. They instead mislead themselves with their often considerable gifts, convinced that their vice is a virtue and the virtue of others a vice. But the rest of us should keep our health and continue to make them go outside, where they belong. 

At least while they’re smoking. 

— Mr. Butler, a writer and runner living in Washington, D.C., is the host of Ricochet’s Young Americans podcast. Mr. Dent is a writer living in Chapel Hill, N.C. 

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