The Phenomenon of Smoking

Smoking is one of the most fascinating social phenomena of our time. As children, we swore that we would never start. One day, however, we do try it. At first, we only smoke occasionally. Then, after a few years, before we know it, we can’t stop. For some people it is only a bad habit, for others a tiresome annoyance and for others an addiction. The subject of smoking causes feelings to run high and creates conflicts. Smokers demand their right to self-determination, non-smokers the protection of their health.

The fascination exerted by the phenomenon of smoking is characterised by the overriding of the basic principles of sensible behavior. Countless examples show that we are afraid of risks. In 2003 the first cases of bird flu became known. In Germany not one person fell ill. And, although one cannot catch it through the consumption of fried meat and the food processing chain is very strictly controlled, a considerable drop in the consumption of poultry products became evident. Not only BSE but also swine flu provoked the same reactions as well.  The examples show that, even when the perception is tending towards a fading minimal risk, we are prone to reacting with exaggerated protective mechanisms. In contrast with this rational pattern of behavior, however, we deal with the danger of consuming tobacco in a completely different way: namely, not at all.

Although, nowadays, every smoker knows that smoking causes a decrease in life expectancy of up to ten years, we do not alter our behavior.2 And yet the risks of smoking are much more visible to us than is the case with BSE, swine flu and the rest. There are warnings on every pack clearly pointing out the dangers. However, we are oblivious to them.

If we compare our behavior when buying cigarettes with our normal shopping behavior, the differences become apparent. Thus, usually, we pay strict attention to how we use our money. It is our aim to achieve the greatest possible benefit with the income available. If the price of a product rises then we buy less. However, when cigarette prices rise we do not alter our behavior. At the most, we change to cheaper tobacco and to rolling our own cigarettes. We do not consider the alternative option: giving up smoking. But what are we actually spending that much money on?

The Benefit of Cigarettes
The benefit conferred upon us by cigarettes is expressed as a kind of well-being. In contrast to the non-smoker, we are however not in the position to achieve this well-being without cigarettes. When looked at rationally, the investment in cigarettes is only worth it, if after smoking we feel better than a non-smoker. This means that we would have to be happier, more relaxed and more at ease than a non-smoker. But do we ever ask what use cigarettes really provide for us?

The benefit we think we obtain from cigarettes is so high that we are willing to make big sacrifices. It can happen that you swallow your pride and even ask people you do not particularly like for a cigarette when you have run out. Or you stand there with a handful of small change at the cash register to get a pack. If cigarettes run out then many people would even walk for an hour in streaming rain in order to buy a new pack.

The Power of Suppression
As smokers we are masters of suppression. Hardly any smoker intends to smoke his whole life. Although we fear the health risks, we do not think about them with every cigarette. The idea that one day we might get cancer is not our daily companion. Only occasionally we think that we would prefer to be non-smokers. However, when we do, we have inhibitions about doing something active about it and hope for a passive cure.

We spend a long time regarding the risk of becoming ill as a very unlikely scenario. Stories of people who, despite being smokers, nevertheless reached a grand old age, here provide us with security. Often the fact that these smokers could probably have become even older, had they not smoked, is ignored. Many people also convince themselves that smoking cannot be as harmful as is always depicted, because many doctors smoke cigarettes too. These are the very people who are fully aware of the consequences. Many of them have experienced the suffering of smokers ravaged by disease in its final stages close up. Nevertheless, this still has not prompted them to give up smoking. This is, however, no indication that the danger of smoking is exaggerated. Doctors, who smoke themselves, do say that they would rather be non-smokers if they had the choice. Only they too are not in the position to give up smoking.

Older smokers often content themselves with saying: “It’s already too late”. In this they are seriously underestimating the regeneration capabilities of the human body. The risk of suffering a heart attack is three times higher for a smoker than for a non-smoker. However, this risk sinks rapidly shortly after we have stubbed out our last cigarette.

An interesting phenomenon as well is that, to a certain extent, we are proud of being smokers as we are “tough cookies”. In our search for justifications we compare ourselves with non-smokers. Should we determine that we are fit despite the smoking and can keep up, then that helps us to minimize the danger. Many years have usually passed before we get to the point where we would like to give up smoking.

The wish to give up smoking is, however, not continually present. Only occasionally the disadvantages of smoking outweigh the benefits. It can be the growing disgust at the smell and taste of cigarettes or the wish for more time on earth in order to be able to fulfill all our dreams while still healthy. Or it is the feeling of no longer being really physically fit and of having breathing difficulties. Other possible reasons are the start of a smoker’s cough or simply the cost factor. Mostly, it is a combination of various triggers and, in the end, the desire to give up becomes so concrete that one would like to realize it in reality.

The Problem of Giving Up
If we have reached this point for the first time, we smoke our last cigarette and vow to renounce the vice. But usually, only a short time later, there we are, holding a cigarette in our hand again. However, this first failure does not cause us much soul-searching. Only very few people can later remember a conscious attempt to give up at all. We continue to smoke for a while until, one day, the wish to become a non-smoker grows again. This time we promise ourselves to have more willpower. Many people then manage it for some days, others a few weeks, sometimes even years. Nevertheless, we relapse once more. Every time we fail we become more and more aware of how difficult it is for us to give up smoking. The pressure intensifies. Slowly we realize that the announcement that we are giving up smoking “before it is too late” is not as easy to put into practice as we had once imagined. We realize that we have a problem.

If we fail in our attempt, we persuade ourselves that the timing was not right. The actual reason why we cannot simply put cigarettes behind us is, however, something else: if we cannot smoke we do not feel well.

Something is missing.

The more often we relapse, or an attempt does not even survive the first day, the greater becomes our anxiety. Each relapse increases the feeling that we are weak or failures. Often we try to keep our relapse quiet for a while. Our self-esteem suffers. Within a short space of time despair turns into resignation. We say: “That’s the way it is,” carry on with our daily life, and go on smoking. Suppression kicks in again and the doubts evaporate …, at least for a while. We postpone the step to give up smoking again and again with the most varied of excuses. Our anxiety about changing our entire daily routine grows, just like the fear of the one moment of weakness.

For many smokers, it is not life without cigarettes that is the problem, but only the fear of putting on too much weight. Everybody knows people in their circle who have been a few pounds overweight since giving up smoking. Rationally, comparing the risk of putting on some weight against the risk of dying prematurely may come out in favor of a longer life. However, the former risk represents such a major barrier for some that they consciously decide to carry on smoking.

Although the phenomenon of smoking throws up all these contradictions, hardly anybody knows the background. Our knowledge is limited to the fact that smoking creates addiction because of the nicotine contained in tobacco. What is really behind this addiction, and how it comes about, is only known to a tiny minority. As long as we do not understand why our ability to behave rationally and take decisions is restricted with regard to smoking, we will not know how to proceed when giving up smoking. Knowing about these connections is of decisive significance. Only this way can we strip the inexplicable away from the fact of being a smoker. For this reason the next chapter has the motto:

Know your enemy!

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1 Hopp D, Lanz C., Studer F., Thon C.: Risikobewertung bei Tierepidemien, URL: http://ueberfachliche-kompetenzen.ethz.ch/proar/Berichte/Risiko_Tierepidemien.pdf (Abruf am 23. Juni 2010).

2 Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum: Tabakatlas Deutschland 2009, S. 42.

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