Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Schaler, J.A. (1997, April 1). Smoking and quitting are matters of free will; Personal responsibility, not physical addiction, is at core.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN, p. 13A)

DATELINE: Washington, D.C.

The increasing attempt to hold tobacco companies responsible for the consequences of smoking behavior poses a greater threat to liberty in a free society than nicotine ever could. When the government acts like a parent, attempting to protect people from themselves, it makes children out of adult citizens. Our Founding Fathers are undoubtedly rolling over in their graves. America was founded on concerns for freedom, not health.

Despite the fact that addiction is not listed in standard textbooks of pathology (because it does not meet the nosological criteria for disease classification), antismoking propagandists define the behavior of smokers as if it were some kind of epileptic seizure. Their attempts to absolve people of responsibility for their behavior are the obvious consequence. Yet, attributing smoking entirely to addiction is not based on the facts and has inevitably led to a legal policy based on fiction. Here are the facts about smoking and responsibility.

There is a difference between what smoking does to a person's body and how smoke gets into his body. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in cooperation with the public-health industry and with attorneys who argue smokers get sick because they have "lost the ability to choose" not to smoke, clouds that distinction. These groups suggest a person's body (as opposed to the person himself) causes a particular vice and its consequences, i.e. smoking behavior doesn't exist apart from physiological processes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While their intentions may be compassionate, the net effect of their thinking is to reduce human beings to machines - chemical and electrical interactions, soulless animals - lacking free will and moral agency, the very qualities we characterize as distinctly human. And remember machines don't operate by themselves. They are operated by people.

Does a car "drive" the driver? Does a pencil "write" the writer? Does a body "run" the person? Of course not! People run their bodies, not the other way around. Yet those who assert nicotine addiction causes smoking are engaging in just such illogical thinking.

Consider the dangerous legal precedent that could be set by such thinking: If smokers' physical addition to nicotine causes them to smoke, one might just as easily argue rapists' bodies cause them to commit rape, murderers' bodies cause them to commit murder, child abusers' bodies cause them to abuse. What kind of world would we live in if those theories were upheld by the courts? If we attribute responsibility for the harm people do to themselves to physiological processes, don't we necessarily have to remove people's responsibility for the harm they cause to others to justly apply the rule of law?

And then we must remove moral agency and responsibility for good behaviors too: Heroism, courage and other virtuous acts such as loving and praying, academic achievement and creativity must also be viewed as having nothing to do with ethical human action. They're simply products of biology. We all know that's inaccurate reasoning.

Nevertheless, it is exactly this kind of argument used by people who are suing the tobacco industry in Minnesota for injuries the plaintiffs may have caused themselves by smoking. Tobacco caused them to smoke, they claim, as if tobacco had a will of its own. Cigarettes, renamed "nicotine delivery systems" by the FDA in order to expand government control over the private lives of its citizens, render smokers incapable of abstinence. Any reasons for smoking thereby become irrelevant.

This doublespeak contradicts the scientific evidence: Smokers quit all the time - when it is important for them to do so. They moderate their smoking at will too. For example, a study of over 5,000 Minnesota workers published in the September 1996 issue of the American Journal of Public Health showed "a substantial proportion of smokers are low-rate users and suggest(s) that the proportion may be rising." This finding supports the idea that psychological factors play a part in smokers' decisions to smoke or not to smoke. It contradicts the claim that people become physiologically enslaved by nicotine addiction once they start smoking.

Moreover, studies published in 1990 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) have shown smokers can quit on their own. This finding undoubtedly upsets the manufacturers of nicotine patches and gum, as well as those who make money on smoking cessation clinics and programs. Indeed, these groups are economically addicted to convincing the public that smokers cannot quit on their own, that willpower won't work. So they spread the lie that smokers have an addiction disease, caused by a physiological dependency on nicotine, one they can never manage on their own. They want the public to believe their products are necessary for curing the disease. Yet scientific studies have long shown that treatment programs for smoking addiction don't work for most people (JAMA, 1990).

Choosing to quit is a simple statement of intention. Whether people are heavy or light smokers has nothing to do with the ability to quit. The best predictor of smoking and cessation of smoking is level of education (JAMA, 1990). Plaintiffs' lawyers in the numerous liability cases directed at American tobacco companies rely on public ignorance in order to make money. They know less-educated persons on the jury are less likely to reason out the facts and more likely to be swayed in their attitudes by "authorities" who obscure the difference between behavior and disease.

Most of us know people who smoked for years and then quit abruptly. Their bodies had adapted to nicotine and since they chose to quit, they did. Question: What do we attribute that behavior to? Answer: Free will.

And what of people who do not want to quit? Why explain their behavior using terms such as weak will and physiological addiction? Those people simply choose to continue smoking, even if a doctor or loved one has suggested they quit. They aren't suffering from a weak will. They have an iron will: They choose to continue smoking against medical advice. And ironically, they are often the ones who transform their iron will into an iron fist, demanding they be financially compensated for the consequences of their own behavior.

There's nothing particularly unusual about noncompliance with medical advice or blaming others for one's own behavior. Many people continue to engage in certain behaviors against medical advice. How many people continue to eat a high-fat diet when their doctor recommends against it? If they develop cardiovascular disease, will they blame McDonald's or Burger King for hooking them on hamburgers and french fries? Why not?

Smoking and quitting, like eating and dieting or exercising and being a couch potato, are matters of free will and personal choice. Yes, habits may cause disease - but habits aren't disease in and of themselves. Cancer is a disease. Smoking is a habitual behavior. Moreover, likening a behavior to a disease seems especially cruel to people with real diseases. A person cannot choose to quit or moderate diabetes.

The price of freedom in a free society is responsibility for the consequences of one's actions. Liberty and responsibility are positively correlated. That's a fact. People who claim addiction causes people to smoke say the two are negatively correlated. That's fiction. We cannot increase freedom by decreasing personal responsibility. That's the road to serfdom.

- Jeffrey A. Schaler, of Silver Spring, Md., teaches at American University's School of Public Affairs in Washington. He has not received any compensation from the tobacco industry for this article.

The following letters were published in The Star Tribune in response to the Op-Ed piece above:

(1997, April 26). In addicted smokers, the will isn't free.
Copyright 1997 Star Tribune

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
SECTION: News; Pg. 27A
HEADLINE: In addicted smokers, the will isn't free

I am perplexed by the op-ed article ("Smoking and quitting are matters of free will," April 1) and even more so that the author had some unspecified teaching position at a major academic institution. Perhaps a primer on basic psychopharmacology or biochemistry might clarify things.

The author, Jeffrey A. Schaler, creates false dichotomies merely to knock them down. Humans are neither creatures of pure, unfettered will (remember that next time you have a cold!) nor mindless automatons, at the mercy of the last substance they have consumed.

Schaler expands on a truly ludicrous set of metaphors: "Does the car drive the driver?" No. But a misaligned front end will definitely alter the driver's behavior (we hope). What about the bodies that built those cars? Certainly the mind might order the body to lift a drive train all alone. It doesn't follow that the body will oblige. "Does the pencil write the writer?" No, the thoughts expressed via the pencil could also be expressed verbally, over the Internet, or in American Sign Language.

"Does the body drive the mind?" Ah, here's the kicker. To a certain extent, that question doesn't even parse properly unless we assume that the mind is fundamentally different and distinct from the body, which leaves the brain in an uncomfortable spot.

"Mind" and "body" are aspects of an incredible, complex interweaving of two ideas that can not be teased apart. Signals and controls run each way.

Chemical changes in the brain cause volitional movement, blood pressure change, temperature control, etc. Likewise, signals from the body can no more be ignored.

I challenge the author to place his hand in an open flame, or to continually fast while abundant delicacies are available. Of course the body and mind control each other. Why else have both?

In the case of addiction, Schaler has thrown up another straw man. Reading his article, he has obviously relegated the brain to part of the body, not the mind - the source of addiction is ongoing, continual stimulation of brain receptors.

But if we do choose Schaler's own nomenclature, this is not a case of the "the body controlling the mind" - the addictive sites that mediate nicotine's compulsive effects on the mind are in the brain! Better to say that this is a case of "the brain controlling the mind."

If we accept Schaler's primary argument, with a stroke of the pen he has also dispensed with all other drug addictions, including cases like narcotics, or amphetamines, where the molecule-by-molecule activity is clearly understood. The only reason we do not have research of this caliber and depth concerning nicotine's pernicious hold on the mind has been the active interference, obfuscation, and downright lies from the tobacco industry.

In addition, Schaler's argument instantly cures hundreds of thousands of the depressed, the bipolar, the legions with psychiatric illness that is amenable to treatment. We understand how antidepressants correct a case of the "body" controlling (or miscontrolling) the "brain." By altering the body, we relieve torturous agony.

Further logical errors abound. To go on would be pointless. Our entire country needs to get over its irrational perceptions of addiction, mental illness, and other brain misregulation. It's (almost) socially acceptable to drink oneself into a noticeably altered state every night, yet dispensing clean needles to addicts at risk is an emotional minefield.

The time is way overdue for a rational discussion of mind, body and brain. If we accept Schaler's argument, that all is pure will, nothing short of decriminalization of all drugs is the acceptable answer.

If it's all just will there are many hazardous activities (bungee jumping, car racing) we permit under the assumption that the participant knows all the risks, yet still elects to participate.

The reason drugs, including nicotine, are treated differently is the belief that they are capable of compelling users to act in manners their "will" would otherwise avoid.

I don't know what Schaler teaches: clearly not logic, as in that one piece he commits the seven basic logical fallacies. I certainly hope it's nothing in the biological sciences. Ironically, it is possible that his personal addiction to nicotine impelled this masterpiece of oversimplification and denial of current psychopharmacological knowledge.

- Carlton Hogan, Minneapolis (who smokes, but recognizes it is a disgusting addiction that annoys friends and harms his body).