19 April 2005

Memo to dope smokers: Your vice stinks too

By David Agren

A person who dabbles in recreational drugs recently berated me at a party for stepping outside to light up a cigarette - a legal, expensive and increasingly socially-unacceptable vice in Canada. After her lecture on the ills of tobacco use, its impact on non-smokers and supposed burden on the social safety net, she toked from a marijuana pipe.

Smoking has become so vilified that many thrill-seekers who indulge in self-destructive vices, ranging from drug use to drinking alcohol to promiscuity, condemn tobacco users, parroting the harsh rhetoric of the anti-smoking lobby. Even worse, they downplay the health risks of their own behaviours and break out amusing libertarian rhetoric to quite accurately observe that the state has no business in prohibiting their bad habits - while castigating tobacco users at the same time.

Stranger still, a growing number of recreational drug users justify their habits by trumpeting the supposed health benefits and organic origins of cannabis.

Last fall, a Calgary Herald contributor recommended marijuana as an alternative to Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory drug recently pulled off the market. But medical marijuana is a red herring. While it offers relief to some, most proponents have no need for it. Instead of making moral arguments to justify their choices, an increasing number of healthy - if not slightly fuzzy headed - pot smokers make unsubstantiated medical claims for their drug of choice. Health Canada would crack down on any nutritional supplement manufacturer making such wild claims for a non-hallucinogenic herb.

Nowadays, much of the smoking criticism comes from the political left as high-minded liberals fret over binge-drinking, long buffet lines, pop machines in schools, caffeine consumption by children and, now, cigarette smoking. The detrimental effects of marijuana use hardly ever get mentioned. "For many left liberals, marijuana has a positive connotation," said Jacob Sullum, a syndicated columnist and the author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health. "It's a function of its legal status that makes marijuana cool. ... If tobacco were banned, it would become cool too." If marijuana is so helpful, what about tobacco use? Some tobacco users claim smoking heightens mental acuity and curbs their appetite. Many smokers gain weight upon quitting. Furthermore, a small body of research demonstrates a few surprising side-effects from smoking tobacco.

In a controversial letter published in The Daily Telegraph in 2003 titled: "Smoking is not all evil," Dr. K.W. E. Denson, a tobacco researcher, claimed cigarettes offered redeeming qualities to some. "Compared with non-smokers, smokers have half the risk of Parkinson's disease and a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease. Women who smoke after their first full-term pregnancy have half the risk of developing breast cancer," he wrote. "Would it not be more honest to allow smokers the choice of an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease, or an increased risk of Parkinson's or Alzheimer's diseases?"

And contrary to popular belief, smokers do not burden the social safety net the way anti-smoking groups claim. If anything, they may save the system money. Smokers usually die sooner and thus forfeit most pension plan contributions, underwriting the retirements of their non-smoking counterparts. "By their logic, the government should be encouraging smoking," Sullum said. As for evil cigarette companies, governments at all levels in Canada profit more from smoking than tobacco manufacturers - and not all of that money goes towards health care. Many of these same people who heap scorn on cigarette companies, laud their local drug dealer and electricity-stealing cultivator for supplying a quality product.

"Tobacco to them ... has connotations of big business," Sullum explained. "Of course, if marijuana were legal, it would be sold by big corporations." Unlike perfectly healthy and able-bodied pot users who promote their vice as a panacea for all sorts of ills, no cigarette smoker cites any kind of medical claim to justify his habit. Most smokers would probably concede claims of supposed benefits sound rather spurious. Instead of castigating smokers, could pot users and their ilk please respect the rights of others to pollute their bodies with equally foul things? Marijuana smokers should step back in rare moment of mental clarity and realize that their vice stinks too.

Originally published at the Calgary Herald Q blog.

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