Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Schaler, J.A. (1997, March 30). It's wrong to let smokers hide behind the excuse of addiction.
The Houston Chronicle, Outlook p. 1.

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 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, 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. Concurrently, 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 addiction to nicotine causes them to smoke, one might just as easily argue that 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 Texas 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 have long 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 have an addictional 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.

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. 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 that 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 doctors 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.

TYPE: Editorial Opinion

NOTES: Schaler, a psychotherapist, has conducted research on addiction policy for many years. He teaches at American University's School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. Schaler does not receive funding from the tobacco industry.

The following letters were published in The Houston Chronicle in response to the Op-Ed piece above:

April 5, 1997, Saturday, 3 STAR Edition
SECTION: a; Viewpoints; Pg. 37

Boomers have choices

The March 30 Outlook article by Dr. Jeffrey A.Schaler (""It's wrong to let smokers hide behind the excuse of addiction''), was filled with logical fallacies such as false analogies, yet I had a mixed reaction. Tobacco companies have repeatedly glamorized a dangerous habit and undeniably targeted children and teen-agers as future smokers, so I am also alarmed that the article could be taken as absolution for them. But overall, I tend to agree with Schaler.

Sometimes I shake my head with amazement at my own generation, the baby boomers. We try so relentlessly to blame all of our weaknesses and problems on others. We are the most spoiled generation in American history and we blame our political ills on politicians - the same ones we keep electing and re-electing.

Thirty years ago when we were in college, we maintained we could trust no one over 30, yet nowadays we clamor for increased criminal penalties against teen-agers. And, of course, we blame tobacco companies, bartenders and society in general for behaviors we don't have the incentive to stop.

I quit smoking after 25 years when my daughter was born two years ago. It was rough, but it was worth it. Wake up, boomers, you actually do have some control over your own behaviors.

Francis A. Williams, Houston

Copyright 1997 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company
The Houston Chronicle
April 10, 1997, Thursday, 3 STAR Edition

SECTION: a; Viewpoints; Pg. 31
Addicts take responsibility

Jeffrey A.Schaler's March 30 Outlook article, "It's wrong to let smokers hide behind the excuse of addiction," made an important point: The lawsuits currently aimed at the tobacco industry all seem to overlook individual responsibility.

With the extensive public debate during the past 30 years or more, can anyone among us (even teen-agers), claim to be unaware that smoking can be habit-forming with bad health affects?

We are too prone these days to shirk responsibility for our own decisions and blame someone else for our problems. Yes, the tobacco industry should be held accountable and must shoulder its share of the blame. But so must individual smokers who have continued to ignore years of warnings.

E.J. Morgan, Houston