Why Shaming Smokers Makes Me Uncomfortable

I’m strolling out of Walmart with a small group of friends. We’re minding our own business, chatting and laughing, when we all catch a whiff of smoke from someone taking a drag of a cigarette just to our left. I hold my breath while walking past, but one of my friends mutters, maybe too loudly, “That’s so unhealthy! Why do people have to do that in public, I don’t want to breathe in their poisoned air.”

This friend has a point—secondhand smoke causes more than 600,000 premature deaths each year. A lot of middle or high schools have some required health curriculum that teaches kids from a young age that when you smoke cigarettes your lungs turn black and if you smoke just once you’ll be addicted for life. It was, if not still is currently, a public health epidemic, killing around six million people every year. It’s simple: smoking is bad, not just for smokers, but the people (and animals) around them. I know this.

But whenever someone, a stranger or a friend, scornfully comments on someone’s smoking habit or coughs excessively to make a point, I get quietly angry. The way I see it, more often than not, whether intentional or not, shaming smokers targets an individual’s character, not the act. To shame someone for smoking in this way is to ignore the person behind the cigarette. 

The prevalence of cigarette smoking is higher in the LGBT community, people currently serving in the military, and people diagnosed with a mental health condition. Though an often-cited reason to start smoking is “to look cool,” we are not taught in health class that for many people, smoking is a coping mechanism. Though smoking is by no means the healthiest way to cope, it can be insensitive to make the blanket statement that smoking is simply wrong. In some cases, it may be the only thing that works. On top of that, when we shame smokers, we brush past the fact that smoking is an addiction, and an addiction is a disease that can’t be turned on and off at will.

Some people have argued that shaming is an effective way to end the smoking epidemic. By this logic, shaming makes smokers feel guilty that they’re doing something “wrong,” which is supposed to be motivation for them to quit. But making someone feel guilty about an addiction they may be unable to overcome creates antagonism to the cause and alienates valuable, cautionary perspectives from efforts to end smoking for good. 

The anti-tobacco campaign called “truth” targets young people with the slogan, “Let’s be the generation to finish it.” This campaign, started in 2014, produces serious but engaging television and internet content intended to reduce smoking among America’s youth, and is currently most recognizable for its commercial about Catmaggedon. Most importantly, in my opinion, truth acknowledges that it is not necessary to shame people to make a difference: “We’re not here to criticize you choices, or tell you not to smoke. We’re here to arm everyone—smokers and non-smokers—with the tools to make change.”

A person’s health is their own responsibility, and it’s not up to the rest of us to decide what is right or what is wrong for them. What will always be wrong, however, is putting another person’s life in danger. As long as smokers are conscious and respectful of the danger secondhand smoke poses to those around them, they do not deserve to be shamed.


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2