Religion & Liberty Online

Smoking and the Sanctity of Life: Where Do We Draw the Line?

justpoliticsIn the most recent issue of Religion & Liberty (22.3), I review Just Politics by Ronald Sider (read the full review here). While the book has much to commend it, my review ultimately ends up being critical. I do not believe it succeeds in constructing a solid social framework for Evangelicals comparable to Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, as is its stated goal. I write,

Just Politics may be a guide in the same sense that a field guide to birds can rightly be called a guide, but it does not succeed at being “a methodology”—like, for example, the scientific method—as is its stated goal. Or more to the point, unlike the Roman Catholic framework of subsidiarity, solidarity, and natural law or the neo-Calvinist framework of sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace, Sider’s framework (Part 3 of the book and the vast majority, nearly 140 pages) resembles more the things one would hang upon a framework than a framework itself.

Among the many things Sider highlights in field-guide-to-birds style (between “Starvation” and “Capital Punishment”) is this peculiarity under the category of the sanctity of human life:


Smoking kills an estimated 438,000 Americans every year. Around the world, the death toll from smoking rises to 5 million each year.

The social costs are enormous. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that smoking costs the nation $75.5 billion each year in medical bills and $92 billion in low productivity. Lung cancer snatches fathers and mothers away prematurely.

Given the devastation caused by smoking tobacco, it is especially ironic that senator Jesse Helms, long heralded as one of the great pro-life supporters, strongly supported government funding to send American tobacco to developing countries under our “Food for Peace” program.

Christians must insist that the sanctity of human life applies to everyone, including people seduced by clever cigarette advertising. Christians must work for effective laws that prevent tobacco advertisements, forbid smoking in most public buildings and facilities, and educate the public on the dangers of smoking. American experience over the last thirty years demonstrates that this mix of government programs can reduce smoking and the deaths it causes.

I find the above statement both challenging and confusing. Let me explain….

I find Sider’s inclusion of “Smoking” as a matter of the right to life challenging in the following way: Sider is, of course, right that hundreds of thousands of people die from smoking related disease every year and that these tragedies bring with them an additional social cost. I applaud the fact that he would call attention to this at all, and I’m thankful that reading his book reminded me of this reality. Certainly Christians—or anyone who supports the natural right to life of all human beings—ought to care about the damage caused to human life by smoking, specifically through cigarette addiction. This is an issue that few people even acknowledge.

However, I find his statement confusing for the following reasons:

First of all, as a Millennial who watched as Philip Morris lost major legal battles in the 1990s, was forced to reveal documents that proved that it had engaged in intentionally deceitful marketing, and was severely penalized, no one in my generation who smokes—unless he/she was living under a rock—could be classed among “people seduced by clever cigarette advertising.” Indeed, the only TV advertising related to smoking was public service ad after ad warning us of the dangerous and addictive qualities of smoking, which played regularly during commercial breaks between segments of Batman: The Animated Series, for example, among other cartoon staples of my generation. The assumption of victimization may be true for certain ages, that I do not deny, but it is presumptuous to apply that assumption to all smokers indiscriminately.

Second, it would seem that Sider is behind the times in at least two of his three imperatives to Christians: “Christians must work for effective laws that prevent tobacco advertisements, forbid smoking in most public buildings and facilities, and educate the public on the dangers of smoking.” Smoking ads have been banned in the US on television and radio since January 2, 1971, and since June 22, 2010, tobacco companies cannot sponsor sports, concerts, or other events or sell apparel with their logos. Perhaps we cannot declare victory until all billboard and magazine ads are wiped out, but I’m skeptical. In addition, with regards to “educat[ing] the public,” cigarette packaging has been required to include the Surgeon General’s warning since the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965. In addition, as I’ve already mentioned, anti-smoking ads have been commonplace at least since my childhood. Indeed, since 1967, the FCC has more or less required television stations to run anti-smoking ads for free. Furthermore, after the whole Philip Morris debacle in the 1990s, Philip Morris itself was required to provide anti-smoking educational material to public schools. Last, many states already “forbid smoking in most public buildings and facilities,” with more states likely to follow. Honestly, what more work really needs to be done here?

Third and last, Sider writes, “American experience over the last thirty years demonstrates that this mix of government programs can reduce smoking and the deaths it causes.” While I do not doubt this, it seems to miss the fact that many anti-smoking campaigns in the last thirty years were spearheaded by non-profits, not by the government (though not, I’m sure, without government funding). It seems one-sided only to acknowledge the government side of a solution that greatly benefited from the private sector as well.

Nevertheless, despite these specific criticisms, there is a broader question to ask, I think: to what extent should the state be able to intervene into the market when a company’s or industry’s product can and tends to, but does not necessarily, endanger our natural rights? This, to me, is a fundamental question to be asked first. But where do we draw the line? Can’t one ever smoke in a way that is truly occasional, like a pipe or a cigar on special occasions? Does the fact that not all smoking leads to tragic results matter at all?

And why stop at smoking? For example, many people claim that certain sugar substitutes cause cancer. Should we outlaw advertising for Diet Coke? For that matter, many people claim that mass consumption of sugars like high fructose corn syrup lead to all sorts of health problems with significant social costs. Should we outlaw advertising for regular Coke as well? If such claims are true, don’t these products endanger our right to life as well, even if to a lesser extent? Doesn’t diabetes kill just as well as lung cancer?

I’m not so sure what the answer to these questions are, but it seems to me the most prudent stance at this point, including with reference to smoking, would be to err on the side of freedom. After all, people will freely find all sorts of ways to live unhealthy lives no matter how many laws and government programs we have. What we need is a more responsible culture in which such choices freely become rarer and rarer, rather than trying to legislate what can ultimately only come from individual initiative. And in that, certainly, Sider is right that pro-life Christians ought to lead the way.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.