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The Morality of Smoking

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Eric Mathis wrote:

Good point.  We all know the dangers associated with driving, tobacco smoking, cocaine snorting, heroin addiction, drug dealing, but engage in those activities when we conclude that doing so is an overall benefit to our life.

In a sense that's true, although you could argue that some of those things are in principle harmful to life (heroin addiction, for example). In any case, it appears to me you don't want to respond to my posts in a straightforward manner and prefer to resort to sarcasm. It's possible I'm misinterpreting your posts, of course, in which case I apologize. In either case, I don't have anything else to add.

Don Watkins

Edited by DPW

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Eric Mathis wrote:

In a sense that's true, although you could argue that some of those things are in principle harmful to life (heroin addiction, for example).  In any case, it appears to me you don't want to respond to my posts in a straightforward manner and prefer to resort to sarcasm.  It's possible I'm misinterpreting your posts, of course, in

Let's see. If we "could argue that some of those things are in principle harmful to life (heroin addiction, for example)," why can't we argue that smoking tobacco is also "harmful to life"?

If you don't wish to respond to this post on the basis of perceived sarcasm, you are allowed not to under forum rules.

Edited by Eric Mathis

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Let's see. If we "could argue that some of those things are in principle harmful to life (heroin addiction, for example)," why can't we argue that smoking tobacco is also "harmful to life"?

You can argue it, but keep in mind that you must argue that smoking is in principle harmful to life, otherwise we're back where we started: having to evaluate the costs and benefits of smoking in the full context of a particular individual's life and values.

Don Watkins

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Hmm, I suppose "adding context" would be an inappropriate thing to do on an Objectivist forum. Perhaps I should have just answered "yes."  Or maybe "no."  Perhaps either one would constitute an "objective" answer.

No, it's only inappropriate when one is trying to avoid answering a question that appears to contradict an earlier statement that person made so as not to admit their error.

But what you can accurately suppose is that using sarcasm to further avoid a direct answer is unappreciated.

Perhaps a more direct question:

Are you or are you not capable of judging the immorality of another's actions in certain contexts, despite having never personally experienced or taken those actions?

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You can argue it, but keep in mind that you must argue that smoking is in principle harmful to life, otherwise we're back where we started: having to evaluate the costs and benefits of smoking in the full context of a particular individual's life and values.

Let’s see if I understand what you mean by “in principle.” If a man regularly walks through a high crime neighborhood unscathed, would we say walking through a high crime district is in principle not “harmful to life”?

And, by contrast, are high crime neighborhoods in principle and in fact harmful to those who cannot manage to get through those neighborhoods without attacks?

To return to smoking and Ayn Rand: cigarettes did in fact prove harmful to Ayn Rand who underwent surgery for lung cancer in 1974. Would it not be fair to say that smoking was in principle harmful to Ayn Rand?

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Perhaps a more direct question:

Are you or are you not capable of judging the immorality of another's actions in certain contexts, despite having never personally experienced or taken those actions?

Not when those actions are entirely self-directed and produce in the actor experiences that I myself am incapable of appreciating.

For example, I would never rent a gay male porno video, but I can understand why some men would want to rent them -- and would rent them frequently.

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Not when those actions are entirely self-directed and produce in the actor experiences that I myself am incapable of appreciating.

I guess that is as close to an affirmative response as I'm going to get. I'm done pulling teeth at this point.

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Let’s see if I understand what you mean by “in principle.” If a man regularly walks through a high crime neighborhood unscathed, would we say walking through a high crime district is in principle not “harmful to life”?

Of course not. What principle would be involved? "A high likelihood of harm," does not a principle make. Principles are contextual absolutes, which means they must arise from causal connections. Getting drunk is (within a normal context) in principle opposed to life because it involves the subversion of your mind, your basic tool of survival. Swimming in shark infested waters, on the other hand, is merely risky. Whether or not you should do it depends on your judgment of the relevant risks and rewards.

And, by contrast, are high crime neighborhoods in principle and in fact harmful to those who cannot manage to get through those neighborhoods without attacks?

What you have here is a case where the risks are so high that it's probably not likely a rational person would have reason to take such an action. That doesn't make it in principle irrational.

To return to smoking and Ayn Rand:  cigarettes did in fact prove harmful to Ayn Rand who underwent surgery for lung cancer in 1974.  Would it not be fair to say that smoking was in principle harmful to Ayn Rand?

It would not be fair for the above stated reasons, anymore than one could argue, "Janet did in fact get hit by a car while crossing the street, thus proving that crossing the street was in principle harmful to Janet."

What you can say is that smoking is a risky activity (all activities carry some risk, so you can't say that any risky activity is therefore immoral or in principle anti-life).

Whether Rand underestimated the risk, or knew the actual risk and decided it was acceptable is a matter of speculation. But the very fact that she knew the potential dangers of smoking AND that she continued to smoke does not imply that she was behaving irrationally. Which was my whole point.

Don Watkins

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Of course not.  What principle would be involved?  "A high likelihood of harm," does not a principle make.  Principles are contextual absolutes, which means they must arise from causal connections. 

Hmm. There is no causal connection between walking alone outside the Green Zone in Baghdad and being killed or kidnapped. Therefore it would absurd to make it a principle not to walk alone in unsafe areas of Baghdad?

Getting drunk is (within a normal context) in principle opposed to life because it involves the subversion of your mind, your basic tool of survival.  Swimming in shark infested waters, on the other hand, is merely risky.  Whether or not you should do it depends on your judgment of the relevant risks and rewards.

If we can trust the swimmer’s judgment of the “relevant risks and rewards,” why can’t we trust the judgment of the man who has three martinis?

What you have here is a case where the risks are so high that it's probably not likely a rational person would have reason to take such an action.  That doesn't make it in principle irrational.

Sure, just think of the rewards smoking offers to the rational person.

It would not be fair for the above stated reasons, anymore than one could argue, "Janet did in fact get hit by a car while crossing the street, thus proving that crossing the street was in principle harmful to Janet."

There is a very low incidence of people getting hit by cars when they cross the street at a time when no car is coming. But, as you said, “statistics are not evidence.” There is no causal relationship between not looking before crossing and getting hit by a car. Therefore, a rational person can refuse to look before crossing the street. It’s all about Janet’s “judgment of the relevant risks and rewards.”

What you can say is that smoking is a risky activity (all activities carry some risk, so you can't say that any risky activity is therefore immoral or in principle anti-life).

That would mean that a man who engages in unprotected sex with a person from a demographic group with a high incidence of AIDS is no more anti-life or immoral than a man who scrupulously avoids unprotected sex. It’s all about his “judgment of the relevant risks and rewards.”

Whether Rand underestimated the risk, or knew the actual risk and decided it was acceptable is a matter of speculation.  But the very fact that she knew the potential dangers of smoking AND that she continued to smoke does not imply that she was behaving irrationally.  Which was my whole point.

Let me make clear that I've not taken the position that Rand's smoking was irrational. I merely wished to point out that if one's life is the standard of value, then avoiding dangerous activities is a sensible course of action. It shouldn’t matter whether there is a proven causal relationship between Activity A and death or merely a statistical relationship. For example, if my child attended a school where dozens of children were coming down with some mysterious disease, I would immediately pull her out. There would not have to be a proven causal relationship between attending that school and getting sick for me to take action to minimize the risk factors. Life is more valuable than third grade. Some think it’s more valuable than smoking.

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Hmm.  There is no causal connection between walking alone outside the Green Zone in Baghdad and being killed or kidnapped.  Therefore it would absurd to make it a principle not to walk alone in unsafe areas of Baghdad?

We don't "make things principles," as if it were a choice on our part. We identify principles. Now, just because something isn't a principle, doesn't make it wise. It depends on the circumstances.

If we can trust the swimmer’s judgment of the “relevant risks and rewards,” why can’t we trust the judgment of the man who has three martinis?
If a man is DRUNK, by that very fact we know his judgment is impared.

Sure, just think of the rewards smoking offers to the rational person.

This is non-responsive to what I wrote.

There is a very low incidence of people getting hit by cars when they cross the street at a time when no car is coming.  But, as you said, “statistics are not evidence.”  There is no causal relationship between not looking before crossing and getting hit by a car.  Therefore, a rational person can refuse to look before crossing the street. It’s all about Janet’s “judgment of the relevant risks and rewards.”
If you really think that follows from what I've written, you may wish to think again. There may be no causal relationship between not looking before crossing and getting hit by a car, but that would be an instance of evasion and therefore in principle anti-life. In other words, the existence of risk does not make an activity in principle immoral, but ignoring risks and refusing to account for them IS immoral. There is, afterall, a causal connection between evasion and death!

I have never advocated ignoring risks. On the contrary, I've said precisely the opposite: that when we choose to engage in an activity we MUST account for the risks involved in relation to what we hope to gain by engaging in that activity (except in cases where something is in principle anti-life, in which case no such analysis is necessary...you simply don't do it).

That would mean that a man who engages in unprotected sex with a person from a demographic group with a high incidence of AIDS is no more anti-life or immoral than a man who scrupulously avoids unprotected sex. It’s all about his “judgment of the relevant risks and rewards.” 

No, it wouldn't mean that. As I've explained, the fact that something is not immoral as such is not license to ignore the very real risks associated with an activity.

Let me make clear that I've not taken the position that Rand's smoking was irrational.  I merely wished to point out that if one's life is the standard of value, then avoiding dangerous activities is a sensible course of action.  It shouldn’t matter whether there is a proven causal relationship between Activity A and death or merely a statistical relationship. 
But this is nonsense. That does NOT follow from life as the standard of value. If it did, no rational man would ever be a soldier, or a cop, or a pilot, as all these things are dangerous. Hell, he probably wouldn't even drive, as this too is risky. Life as the standard of value means that when we choose to engage in a risky acitvity, we must take those risks into account, and only accept them if, in the total context of our life, the values to be gained outweight the associated risks.

For example, if my child attended a school where dozens of children were coming down with some mysterious disease, I would immediately pull her out.  There would not have to be a proven causal relationship between attending that school and getting sick for me to take action to minimize the risk factors.  Life is more valuable than third grade.  Some think it’s more valuable than smoking.

Yes, I'd pull her out too. Why? Because, as I've stated time and again, just because something isn't wrong in principle doesn't mean it's RIGHT. What it means is that determining whether or not it's right requires a weighing of the risks versus rewards, which must be done RATIONALLY. "I feel like swimming with sharks," is not a rational analysis.

Don Watkins

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We don't "make things principles," as if it were a choice on our part.  We identify principles.  Now, just because something isn't a principle, doesn't make it wise.  It depends on the circumstances.

You’re employing a very restrictive definition of “principle.” A principle can be a “basic truth”; it can also be a “fixed or predetermined policy or mode of action.” Nothing in reality prevents me from embracing the policy (or principle) of not walking the streets of Baghdad alone.

If a man is DRUNK, by that very fact we know his judgment is impared.

I did not realize that the effect of alcohol is retroactive and impairs the judgment of the man who has ordered but not yet tasted his first martini.

This is non-responsive to what I wrote.

You were arguing that a high risk activity does not “in principle” make it “irrational.” In that regard I mentioned smoking. I regret that you found my example unsuitable.

If you really think that follows from what I've written, you may wish to think again.  There may be no causal relationship between not looking before crossing and getting hit by a car, but that would be an instance of evasion and therefore in principle anti-life.  In other words, the existence of risk does not make an activity in principle immoral, but ignoring risks and refusing to account for them IS immoral.  There is, afterall, a causal connection between evasion and death!

Who said that Janet was ignoring the risks? Perhaps she was on her cell phone to the police and ranked giving them the license plate number of the driver who had just kidnapped her son a higher value than knowing whether or not there was a car headed her way. It seems you have lost sight of your, uh, principle of letting one’s “judgment of the relevant risks and rewards” determine whether or not one should engage in an activity.

No, it wouldn't mean that.  As I've explained, the fact that something is not immoral as such is not license to ignore the very real risks associated with an activity.

Who’s ignoring? Earlier you wrote, “Swimming in shark infested waters, on the other hand, is merely risky. Whether or not you should do it depends on your judgment of the relevant risks and rewards.”

Is having unprotected sex riskier than swimming with sharks? And even if it is, doesn’t ones’ “judgment of the relevant risks and rewards” determine whether or not one should do it?

But this is nonsense.  That does NOT follow from life as the standard of value.  If it did, no rational man would ever be a soldier, or a cop, or a pilot, as all these things are dangerous.  Hell, he probably wouldn't even drive, as this too is risky.  Life as the standard of value means that when we choose to engage in a risky acitvity, we must take those risks into account, and only accept them if, in the total context of our life, the values to be gained outweight the associated risks.

So as a solider risks his life to free his country, Ayn Rand risked her life to enjoy Marlboro Country.

Yes, I'd pull her out too.  Why?  Because, as I've stated time and again, just because something isn't wrong in principle doesn't mean it's RIGHT.

Neither right nor wrong, but floating in the cult of moral grayness.

What it means is that determining whether or not it's right requires a weighing of the risks versus rewards, which must be done RATIONALLY.  "I feel like swimming with sharks," is not a rational analysis.

"I feel like having a cigarette," is not a rational analysis. But apparently, “I smoke because I enjoy it and have not seen any proof of a causal relationship between cigarettes and cancer” is.

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I still wonder how anyone can take their first hit of a cigarette and not realize its harmfulness, regardless of what the physicians said.

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I still wonder how anyone can take their first hit of a cigarette and not realize its harmfulness, regardless of what the physicians said.

But the first cigarette isn't really harmful...certainly not in any sort of context most fourteen or fifteen year olds can usually hold. The problem with smoking one ciagarette is not the smoking of that cigarette, but the likelihood that one cigaratte will lead to two, which will lead to three, which will lead to four...etc.

Don Watkins

Edited by DPW

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The morality of smoking is a measure of degree, not of perfect right or wrong, just with most indulgances. The truth of it is that no one can predict precisely when or how he will die, whether or not he will develop cancer, or what. You could lead a perfectly pristine and sainted life with no indulgences of any kind whatsoever and wind up getting cancer in your 20's because you've got some bad genes. I know people who smoked all their life and lived to be eighty or ninety.

What's the point of living a few extra years if you've got to deny yourself your enjoyments in order to do it? Were you expecting to live forever?

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Stephen King in his book "On Writing" said that cigarrettes do help a writer's creativity. So its possible that they helped Ayn write "Atlas Shrugged". Nicotine is a stimulant and the deep inhaling and exhaling has been compared to meditation. The Japanese have a higher smoking rate and a longer life span on average. Eating unhealthy, not getting enough sleep, high stress levels all are bad for the body, but you wouldnt label someone immoral for any of them. I dont see why smoking would be any different. Smokers are made into second class citizens by the media and the non smoking public. But a whole bunch of things can kill you. I dont think smoking makes you immoral.

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This is something I've thought about a lot. I smoke but usually only when I want to celebrate, or I need to clear my head and think about something important. I understand that if I chain smoke long enough there will be repercussions. I know because I have been through periods where I've smoked several cigs a day and I noticed that my stamina dropped when I was jogging. That's when I decided to limit my intake to special occasions.

Whoever said it was right, it is a cost-benefit analysis. How much joy to I get from smoking? How much does worrying about my health detract from my enjoyment? How bad are the actual health consequences?

I'm sure Ayn did the same thing.

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If something is harmful to your life, and you know it's harmful, yet you do it anyway, I don't see how this can be moral when your life is the standard of value. Here's what it appears was the case. Ayn Rand started smoking when she did not know it was harmful to her health. When she found out, she committed an immoral act by denying the facts, then later she finally corrected herself and stopped smoking. I think anyone who starts smoking in this day and age is an idiot who has little value for his or her life.

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If something is harmful to your life, and you know it's harmful, yet you do it anyway, I don't see how this can be moral when your life is the standard of value.  Here's what it appears was the case.  Ayn Rand started smoking when she did not know it was harmful to her health.  When she found out, she committed an immoral act by denying the facts, then later she finally corrected herself and stopped smoking.  I think anyone who starts smoking in this day and age is an idiot who has little value for his or her life.

Smoking, however, does not harm anyone else, or wouldn't in a rational society. I've never smoked, so I would never condemn someone for doing something that he enjoys doing and that isn't immediately and obviously harmful, like plunging a knife into one's chest, and that might have benefits I couldn't possibly be aware of. I also don't trust Surgeon Generals' reports in general. In this day of nanny-state propaganda, a rational man has to seek out his own information and make his own decisions. In most of the world, most people still smoke, when they can afford it. They regard it as a great pleasure. So isn't there a lot of evidence on the positive side of the smoking argument?

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Smoking, however, does not harm anyone else, or wouldn't in a rational society.
Well, that's just not true. Smoking literally stinks and I don't want anyone smoking near me. That's why I don't allow smoking in my house, and avoid businesses that tolerate smoking on-premise. I even give serious consideration to the possibility that other people's smoke will harm my lungs.

Of course, if you're approaching this issue from the perspective of a medical expert, and on that basis you reject the scientific evidence that shows that smoking causes cancer, then the "hastens death" argument isn't going to hold much sway. The argument that many people in the world do it because it is pleasurable to them doesn't provide any evidence that smoking is safe, and in the context of modern medical knowledge, it really just shows that these people have a particular hierarchy of values where the certainty of the immediate pleasure deriving from inhaled smoke outweighs the possibility of dying years before you would have died as a non-smoker. These people (for convenience, let's call them "Europeans") almost certainly don't seek their own scientific information, they just decide to not care. Rand had to make a decision, and when presented with the reality of the effect on her health of smoking, she stopped smoking. I don't believe that she felt compelled to become a medical expert herself, and instead she trusted the judgment of her own doctor. But of course if a person is more knowledgeable on a particular medical / scientific issue than your doctor, it makes perfect sense to ignore the suggestions of the doctor.

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Well, that's just not true. Smoking literally stinks and I don't want anyone smoking near me. That's why I don't allow smoking in my house, and avoid businesses that tolerate smoking on-premise. I even give serious consideration to the possibility that other people's smoke will harm my lungs.

Of course, if you're approaching this issue from the perspective of a medical expert, and on that basis you reject the scientific evidence that shows that smoking causes cancer, then the "hastens death" argument isn't going to hold much sway. The argument that many people in the world do it because it is pleasurable to them doesn't provide any evidence that smoking is safe, and in the context of modern medical knowledge, it really just shows that these people have a particular hierarchy of values where the certainty of the immediate pleasure deriving from inhaled smoke outweighs the possibility of dying years before you would have died as a non-smoker. These people (for convenience, let's call them "Europeans") almost certainly don't seek their own scientific information, they just decide to not care. Rand had to make a decision, and when presented with the reality of the effect on her health of smoking, she stopped smoking. I don't believe that she felt compelled to become a medical expert herself, and instead she trusted the judgment of her own doctor. But of course if a person is more knowledgeable on a particular medical / scientific issue than your doctor, it makes perfect sense to ignore the suggestions of the doctor.

"Stinks" does not equate to harms. You can bar smokers from your premises and not frequent restaurants that allow smokers, but the prevalence of lies about the harmfulness of second-hand smoking makes one doubt all the other statistics about smoking. The lies are used, of course, to expand state power. And not just Europeans smoke. Practically everyone except Americans does. Now just because everyone jumps off a cliff ... etc. But. And, no, I don't trust my doctor to go against a generation of received wisdom, at least in his recommendations to his patients. A lot of doctors smoke. I know why I don't smoke. I had asthma and bronchitis as a child and couldn't bear the idea of not being able to breathe freely. But that was more a knee-jerk feeling than a rational response. Many anti-smokers are just as irrrationally emotional as smokers can be.

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"Stinks" does not equate to harms.  You can bar smokers from your premises and not frequent restaurants that allow smokers, but the prevalence of lies about the harmfulness of second-hand smoking makes one doubt all the other statistics about smoking.
I don't know what definition of "harm" you're working from, but it is a definite harm (whether or not it is life-threatening). Harm is not limited to "causes death or disfigurement". I was reacting to the statement that you made, that smoking doesn't harm others, which is false. On the other hand, if your point was that smoking does not constitute initiation of force, that is correct. I don't know whether smoking can contribute to the decay in respiratory health of others, but the burden is on the fanatics. That's why I oppose blanket legislative smoking bans, and support them on a business-by-business basis; I use that information to make my personal choices.

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The argument that many people in the world do it because it is pleasurable to them doesn't provide any evidence that smoking is safe, and in the context of modern medical knowledge, it really just shows that these people have a particular hierarchy of values where the certainty of the immediate pleasure deriving from inhaled smoke outweighs the possibility of dying years before you would have died as a non-smoker. These people (for convenience, let's call them "Europeans") almost certainly don't seek their own scientific information, they just decide to not care. Rand had to make a decision, and when presented with the reality of the effect on her health of smoking, she stopped smoking. I don't believe that she felt compelled to become a medical expert herself, and instead she trusted the judgment of her own doctor. But of course if a person is more knowledgeable on a particular medical / scientific issue than your doctor, it makes perfect sense to ignore the suggestions of the doctor.

How are you assuming that everyone who continues to smoke hasn't done research or considered scientific findings?

I smoked about a pack a week for a year consistently before giving it up over two months ago. When I started smoking I wasn't disregarding popular belief or current scientific wisdom. I tried a cig when I was a teen and liked it but avoided it until college because of all the health warnings (same with drinking). I did a lot of research into the health risks (same with drinking) and came to the conclusion that occasional indulgence in these risky activities held a miniscule health risk.

An important variable you are failing to acknowledge is the amount of cigarettes people smoke. During my research (before I was smoking) I found something called a pack-year history which estimates your risk of health problems from the amount of 'packs' per day multiplied by year. (for example someone with a 30 pack-year history would be risking lung cancer)

I kept my pack per day lower than .2 I enjoyed smoking after class or a test or while I was writing, but I eventually noticed a decline in my stamina. I wanted to increase my running mileage and pace as well as my overall health--smoking was obviously not helping me with those goals, so I quit. My priorities shifted--my health and performance were more important to me than the pleasure I gained from smoking.

Don't assume that everyone who smokes is a chain smoking evader of reality with a disregard for life. Maybe smokers understand (probably better than you do) the risks involved in their activities. I look at people who suntan and I don't think they're stupid. They just like tanning enough to risk skin damage and skin cancer (but i'm sure they know better than I do how much tanning it takes to up ones risk).

Now that I've quit for good and actively avoid smoke, I still don't think it's right for the government to ban smoking in any private establishment, nor to I believe that smokers have some kind of death wish. Sure, chain smokers have a disregard for their health, but people who occasionally smoke are taking a calculated risk.

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Nicotene is so addictive that very long term heavy smokers seem to be unable to quit even knowing the health risks. Addiction is a strange beast and the addict seems to be able justify just about anything to feed the craving.

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Yeah, but even addiction is overplayed.  As human beings, we have the power of free will, and it is in our power to not buy or indulge in anything.

This is true. My father smoked ( i guess about a pack a day) from age 13 to 25. Then one day (when he was going to have kids) he decided to quit. No gum no patch no problem. If you want to quit, for real it isn't that hard.

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