Opponents of smoking have a good case: smoking does increase health risks. Nonetheless, many people continue to smoke. According to non-smokers, they are addicted to nicotine. Is that so?

Many smokers have given up their habit. They managed to surmount the obvious difficulties more easily than people who try to give up overeating. The comparative case hardly suggests anaddiction-unless by addiction we mean an ingrained habit and not an ineluctable physical craving, in which case “addiction” becomes a facon de parler.

If they are not addicted, why do the remaining smokers not stop, in view of the known health risks? Perhaps some do indeed continue because they have come to crave the effects of how much nicotine in a cigarette. They really have become addicted and suffer physical difficulties when they stop smoking. However, that is not the case of all smokers. I think it is the case of only a few. Probably most people smoke regardless of, and some even despite, nicotine. I smoke cigars, because I like smoking them. Actually the nicotine annoys me. It prevents me from smoking as many cigars as I would like: doing so would make me too jumpy because of the nicotine. I don’t smoke in the evening because the nicotine interferes with my sleep. I would smoke more if someone invented cigars that taste as good as the ones I currently smoke, without the nicotine I’m presumed to crave.

How about alcohol? Like nicotine, alcohol has physiological effects. Many people drink for the sake of these effects, which they like. They want to be relaxed” by alcohol, or to get drunk. However, I like the taste of wine, beer, liqueur. If someone invented a drink with the taste of these but without alcohol, I would drink far more than I do now. Alcohol does nothing for my mood other than making me tired. (I don’t care to get drunk.)

Nobody knows how many smokers smoke despite and not because of what does nicotine do, how many drinkers drink despite and not because of the inebriating effects of alcohol. Why assume that most smokers or drinkers want mainly nicotine or alcohol?

If it is not, at least not always, the nicotine or the alcohol, why do people smoke or drink? Why do babies suck their thumbs? Surely not for nicotine or alcohol. Since being weaned from their mothers’ breasts, most people like to put something in their mouths. Some of us satisfy that longing by eating or drinking even when there is no physical need, or by smoking. Some just chew gum. One may exhort smokers to stop because of the health risk. But it is silly to label them addicted because they won’t stop. After all, people habitually take many other health risks-in driving, or crossing the street, or eating the wrong foods-without being alleged to be “addicted.”

Cui Bono?

Addiction is an overextended concept. It appears now to describe any habit we disapprove of, perhaps because “addiction” enables us to disapprove of habits without blaming the person who develops them. A seductive idea: we can blame the dealer or manufacturer who makes a profit (horrors) while conveniently exonerating our friends. They suffer from a disease for which they cannot be blamed, although they volunteer. Not least, there are many juicy jobs for researchers and professionals who will treat, if not cure, addicts for the volitional weakness euphemistically depicted as a disease. They have a considerable stake in the thing.

Perhaps it is too hard for optimistic and rationalistic Americans to face the fact that many people who smoke or drink too much do what they want, even though it is bad for them. Some are self-destructive. Others indulge short-term satisfaction despite long-term risks. Still others are semi-addicted. Sigmund Freud knew that his cigars aggravated his oral cancer. He gave them up for six months but couldn’t write. So he resumed. Was it the nicotine? Would nicotine injections have satisfied him? Or was it the act of smoking and the taste of cigars? Advanced alcoholics are a special case. Often they no longer are able to develop the will power to stop, to resist the temptation to satisfy the need they have developed and which kills them. This is true of those addicted to somedrugs too. They have to be detoxified before they can stop-if they want to. Even for smokers it becomes progressively more difficult to shake the habit. But, unlike alcoholics, smokers are addicted in a largely metaphorical sense. Perhaps the flesh is weak; temptation is hard to resist. But it may also be that the spirit is not altogether willing.

Real addicts who want to be helped should get all the psychological support-such as Alcoholics Anonymous-we can give. But there is no use pretending that every persistent smoker is a nicotine addict, even though it makes the non-smokers feel better to think so, or that everyone who likes to drink is an alcoholic. Nor is it sensible to believe that either is necessarily sick and cannot help himself. On the contrary, he cannot be helped by others unless he really wants to help himself. Their help consists of supporting his decision. He may not want to make that decision. Those who try to change the habits of the smoker or drinker who does not want to stop may themselves be “addicted” to telling others how to live and die.

P.S.: As we all know, Japanese live longer, on the average, than Americans, probably because the Japanese eat little meat, hardly any dairy foods, and lots of fish and rice. (Might one say Americans are addicted to meat and dairy food?) The Japanese also smoke more than Americans do. This does not show that smoking prolongs your life. It does demonstrate, however, that smoking shortens life less decisively than diet does.