Hitchens on Smoking

There is something repellant about the idea of Christopher Hitchens, of all people, having to waste his time in the company of “stop smoking” companies and the rest of the self-improvement industry. Waste your time on his account here and here.

I spent a year of my life researching the smoking problem, and I was a smoker when I started. When I mean “research”, incidentally, I mean that I read every peer-reviewed article I could lay hands on, and interviewed something in the order of one thousand smokers and ex-smokers. I’ve worked with smokers for almost a decade now.

So I can say right away now why Hitchens came away still a smoker.

Because he was right, and his “helpers” were wrong. Cigarette smoking went around the world in forty years, not because it reduces its users to the status of sad addicts, but because the psychological advantages to smoking are real and considerable. But for the unfortunate (and only partial, and only relative) threat to health cigarettes pose, smokers, living as they do in the same vale of tears as the rest of us, have the advantage over non-smokers.

The hardest smokers to help are the ones who’ve lost sight of what they were getting out of smoking – the ones who insist on berating themselves as weak fools.

What I learned from all those interviews was that smoking cessation tends to happen when stopping becomes of greater psychological value than smoking, and that it is very much a personal matter. The reason techniques that I disagree with often work – especially the Allen Carr route, which has a genuine track record – is, I suspect, because they succeed in tapping into this.

On rare occasions, I even meet someone who succeeded in stopping permanently whilst using Nicotine Replacement Therapy. (The idea here, of course, is that nicotine is “addictive” and that the way to proceed is to slowly wean the user off it. It’s rare to come across a proper study – try a BMJ search and see what I mean – which doesn’t point up a failure rate in the 85-90% band over one year, more in seven. But then, I think the whole “addiction” idea is due a major rethink. There are only so many such studies you can read without realizing that it is only assumed that we know what we mean by “addiction,” that there are quite a few ill-thought-through definitions of it, and how badly in need we are of a working definition of the term that is agreed across the board AND evidence-based. But that’s a big subject, and this is scarcely the place.)

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2 responses to “Hitchens on Smoking

  1. You’re right that it’s a big subject. (And I realise now, this has turned into a very rambling comment on my part.)

    Anecdotally, I was able to stop smoking very easily, but my relationship with sugary foods is altogether more fraught. I never smoked that much when writing essays, but chocolate… anyway, I guess one obvious point is that if there is a physiological component to “addiction” it’s not at all clear that it operates to the same strength for the same “drug” across the population.

    I definitely agree incidentally that most of these “social addictions” (cigarettes, alcohol) tend to have psychological benefits that discussions of quitting never seem to engage with. Of course, one might also note that the proposed “healthy alternatives” like “exercise” may, just as cigarettes with me, not provide the same psychological boost for everyone.

    But, saying all this, I wanted to pick a bone with the inclusion of “cosmetic dentistry” here. As a friend who was a recruiter for a top bank in London said “you don’t see many people with bad teeth and weight problems in the younger parts of investment banking.” (Age, big dinners and lots of red wine tends to turn old bankers into stained teeth hippos, but that’s when they are secure in their profession.)

    Anyway, the point is, if you’re not a writer or an independent hypnotherapist then multiple studies have shown how your career prospects can depend in part on your physical appearance. So I don’t know that “cosmetic dentistry” belongs in the “wacky self-help” category quite so much.

  2. I have to admit here how much I meant that “repellant”: I didn’t make it as far as the cosmetic dentistry part.

    No, I’d not count it as wacky self-help. I’m quite pro all things of this kind, including plastic surgery: I’ve seen it change lives.