Monday, May 23, 2011

Smoking is . . . is not, an addiction

There's been a lot written about smoking and addiction on the blogs and websites dedicated to such issues this past week. It's actually a difficult subject to discuss because there's no longer any real definition of addiction; the meaning has become rather vague, lost actually, with the parameters seemingly changing to suit the occasion.

John Banzhaf, one of the high priests of the Holy Church of the Anti-smoker, has pontificated that smoking is not an addiction. The addiction, he claims, is to nicotine. And, since nicotine addicts can get their fix from any number of sources or delivery systems, including the patch, gum or electronic cigarette, then smoking becomes a choice.

And, it naturally follows that, if smoking is a choice, then it is fair and reasonable to discriminate against smokers by refusing medical treatment, among other things.

Anti-smoking activist Michael Siegel, takes exception to Banzhaf's decree, claiming that smoking is indeed an addiction; smokers are as much in need of the rituals involved in smoking as they are in the hit of nicotine.

Siegel's main concern is that, if smoking is viewed as a choice rather than an addiction, then legal action against the tobacco companies, dependent as they are on the proposition that people don't quit because they can't, becomes that much more difficult. The contention that the tobacco companies compel smokers to use their product by making it addictive becomes a somewhat specious argument.

If nicotine is the addiction, and there are other sources of nicotine available, then the case against the tobacco companies goes up in smoke. The anti-smoker strategy of painting smokers as the helpless victims of “big tobacco” falls apart and smokers become the authors of their own misfortune.

In the US, the patch became available by prescription in 1992, and over the counter in 1996. Other alternative nicotine delivery systems have been developed and marketed since then. So, if nicotine is addictive, then Banzhaf has a point. And, the smoker has ample access to an alternative supply of nicotine. In addition, there are now a number of relatively safer tobacco products available, including the electronic cigarette and snus. Plug (chewing tobacco), cigars and pipes have also been shown to be less hazardous in comparison to cigarettes.

So, can either smoking or nicotine be properly considered an addiction?

Reviewing the smoking prevalence statistics from Health Canada's last SAMMEC report, we find that 44% of Canadians over the age of fifteen (roughly 8 million) are former smokers. So, if either smoking or nicotine is an addiction, obviously neither requires a herculean effort to break. Certainly neither is in the same league as heroin or cocaine addiction.

To me, that suggests the anti-smoker claim that 75% or 80% or 120% of smokers want to quit but simply can't because of their addiction is just so much bullshit. If they really wanted to quit, they'd join the 8 million Canadians who have already done so.

As a layman, I have to rely on common sense to distinguish between addiction and habit. For example, if I run out of smokes and knock on my neighbours door to beg a fag, I'm entertaining a habit. If I kick in his door, beat him about the head with a blunt instrument and take his fags, then I'm feeding an addiction.

That may be considered a simplistic analogy, but the scientific (medical) definition of addiction has become meaningless. I read of addictions to chocolate, sex, Big Macs, computer games and pale ale, among other things. The growing list of addictions has become something of a joke. Every time I read about some new addiction, I find myself wondering just what the fuck they're talking about.

No two people are alike. Like their fingerprints, each individual is unique. Some will have a much more difficult time in giving up their habit(s) than others. But, that does not make them addicts. Some people will use addiction as an excuse for not giving up a habit, but it's just as likely that they haven't really made the commitment required to quit successfully. Because, deep down, they don't really want to quit smoking, or eating chocolate or drinking pale ale.

So, it appears that one faction of the anti-smoker cult wants to paint nicotine as the culprit. That way they can lobby government to promote NRT (nicotine replacement therapy) as the cure for “nicotine dependence” and provide free NRT for those poor helpless souls who, according to the zealots, just can't quit any other way. And, greater sales of NRT will, not coincidentally, put a smile on the faces of their financial backers in the pharmaceutical industry.

In addition, if nicotine is the addiction, they can continue to attack all forms of nicotine delivery from alternative tobacco products such as the electronic cigarette and snus. To the anti-smoker cult, pharmaceutical nicotine is the only acceptable form of nicotine.

The opposing faction wants the act of smoking itself identified as the addiction. Going down that road leads to more legal action against the big, bad wolf as symbolized by the tobacco industry. They can continue the charade that smokers, because of their addiction, are simply incapable of free choice.

Neither construct fits the classical definition of addiction; both do a disservice to smokers who may actually want to quit. Those individuals are being convinced by anti-smoker zealots that quitting is hopeless without the intervention of the cult; that the road to salvation (giving up the habit) lies only in following the dictates of the Holy Church of the Anti-smoker.

Dictates . . .dictator . . . anti-smokers . . . that's why I'll never be a former smoker.

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