Monday, February 23, 2009

Tying Up Some Loose Ends on Smoking

By Andrew Faris

As I anticipated, there was some objection to my post from Thursday that suggested that smoking in and of itself is not always sinful and can certainly be done to the glory of God.

I am grateful for thoughtful objections, as this is an issue that I'm still processing. I figured I might as well address those in a new post because I have more to say than a comment's worth. In particular here I think of John Bruce's reasonable and humble objection (posted as "Jeff and Jenny's Dad") that goes into the most detail. I'll handle all of this in a point by point manner.

Objection #1: There is no question about it: smoking in all forms does increase health risks, and therefore Christians should not engage in it.

Let me state something upfront on this: if it is true that the kind of smoking I am here referring to significantly increases my health risks, I will stop. But I am still simply not convinced that this is the case. I will continue to use myself as a test case.

I am a 25 year old who smokes a pipe probably two times a week on average. This has been the case for the last six months to a year. When I get married in a month and a half, this number will decrease because I will no longer live in a house with four other men who enjoy smoking, and in fact my fiancee doesn't love it. Put simply, I do not think that this amount of smoking brings serious health risks.

Part of the reason for this is that in the studies I have found (including this quite thorough government-published monograph on cigar smoking), the test cases do not include those who smoke less than one cigar per day. My understanding is that there has been quite little research on this group of smokers (which would include me). And again I hasten to add that pipes contain far less tobacco than do cigars, which leads me to believe that the health risk is far less.

So here is a question for those who object on the grounds of health: can you point me to a study that measures this kind of occasional smoking? Because if you can, please do- I really would like to know. It appears to me that there is not enough risk in occasional pipe or cigar smoking to warrant a serious study, though I most certainly could be wrong about that!

Let me add one more thing to this point: are you, in an a priori kind of way, at all willing to accept even the possibility that the occasional smoking I have described actually does not present significant health risks? It strikes me as I think through this issue that it is so ingrained in the minds of most people that all forms of smoking absolutely will kill you that the simple idea of doing it in a non-destructive way is thrown out as impossible. But as I've said, I'm really not sure this is true.

And here, I maintain my analogy between the health risks of a poor diet and the health risks of occasional smoking. Heart disease is the biggest killer in America, yet there is fast food on every corner. I am reminded of the movie "Thank You For Smoking" where Aaron Eckhart's character suggests that it is inconsistent to want to put giant "smoking kills" type warning labels on cigarette packs while we do no such thing on fast food burger wrappers.

I think the comparison is fair: the National Center for Health Statistics says that a staggering 66.3% of Americans who are at least 20 year old are overweight or obese. says that 33% of adult Americans are obese, and obesity related deaths per year over 300,000 (second only to smoking related deaths!). As far as I can tell, that only measures obesity related deaths, not those related to being overweight more generally. Yet there aren't warning labels on your burger, fries, and soda.

On top of all that, the Bible directly condemns gluttony, but I don't see Christians up in arms about it. Why? Well, culturally the two are perceived differently, probably at least in part due to the addiction issue with smoking. But if you don't think eating food that is bad for you is addictive, then you've never talked to the countless overweight people who have been trying to lose the same weight for twenty years.

All that said, you can eat greasy food in moderation and probably considerably lessen the adverse health effects- I'm not suggesting that we all become vegans! I am suggesting that the same moderation is possible with smoking.

Objection #2: What about second hand smoke?

I always smoke outside, I don't smoke that often, and I almost make a point of blowing smoke away from everyone sitting with me. I honestly cannot imagine that this presents a significant health risk given these circumstances.

Some even suggest that studies measuring the effects of secondhand smoke are suspect, and it does seem that the major focus is on people who spend lots of time in places where there is relatively constant second hand smoke, such as in a bar or a house with addicted cigarette smokers.

Objection #3: What about the possibility of addiction?

Smoking a pipe or cigar is less addictive than cigarettes because one does not inhale the smoke, which means that nicotine does not enter the bloodstream as quickly or fully. This is probably why there are so many occasional pipe and cigar smokers like me who frankly feel no addiction to it. In fact I myself have never personally known an addicted cigar or pipe smoker, despite knowing so many people who casually smoke them. I myself have never felt an addiction to pipe smoking.

That said, when a roommate of mine was trying to quit smoking cigarettes, the rest of us stopped smoking our pipes and cigars when he was around. We all realize that smoking will kill you if you do it regularly and we don't want that to happen to our friend.

So if you find yourself getting addicted, do everything you can to quit and never start again. This is quite similar to alcoholism: the Bible clearly approves of drinking alcohol in moderation, but it also clearly condemns drunkenness. So if you are an alcoholic, stay away altogether. Similarly, if you know someone who is addicted to smoking, don't invite them to smoke with you.

Which leads to my last point:

Objection #4: What about 1 Cor. 8-10 and Rom. 14:14-15? Even if smoking isn't unclean, is it unloving?

This is exactly why I pick my co-smokers carefully. Those passages in my view address the issue of violating conscience. The logic in 1 Cor. 8 and Rom. 14 seems to be that if we think it may very well be sinful to take part in some action but we go on doing it anyway, then we are not seeking to honor Christ first. And if we lead others to do the same, then we're leading brothers and sisters into sin. Bad ideas, unquestionably.

For Paul the issue is food sacrificed to idols. Paul knows that the pagan gods aren't really gods at all, and therefore the food is just food. It's not mystically cursed, Satanic food; it's just food. But if another believer sees my eating idol-food as condoning idol worship, then I am creating some serious turmoil for that believer. Again, bad idea.

1 Cor. 10 appears to have more of a focus on non-believers (vv. 31-33). Again, if my eating idol-food is seen by a non-believer as condoning idol worship, then that believer will see no reason to exclusively worship Christ. The principle is the same.

So in his comment on my first post, John put it like this: "The issue isn't just whether an activity is legal; it's whether its loving." That is absolutely in keeping with the intent of those passages.

Thing is, that was exactly the logic of my whole post on the matter: occasional smoking has been a way for me to love believer and non-believer alike. But I also strongly advocate carefulness here. For example, I was recently corresponding with my aunt (a non-believer who is nonethless very interested in Jesus) over email who made a point of expressing her disgust for cigarettes, saying that Jesus would never do that sort of thing. So next time I see her, I don't plan on lighting up in front of her because I wouldn't want her to think that I am not satisfied in Christ alone. I have the freedom to smoke or not to smoke, but it could hinder the gospel if I smoke in front of her. It's a no-brainer.

By contrast, my roommate and I recently went to our next-door neighbor's house and enjoyed a beer and a smoke (a pipe for me, a cigar for Joel) with him, his wife, and another neighbor. Sitting there and drinking (in moderation) and smoking with that group was an easy way to build my relationship with them. It breaks down any perceived Christian pretense as well- sort of a reverse way of serving their consciences. And as far as I could tell we were in no way perceived as less Christian either. In fact when my neighbor said, "I didn't know you guys drank beer and smoked cigars," I responded, "Show me the passage in the Bible that says I can't, and I'll stop." I think I also threw in something about how though I do drink, I don't get drunk. I was actually able to affirm Biblical authority in the midst of smoking and drinking with non-believers!

My point in all of this is to restate what I did in my last post, namely that smoking in moderation is Biblically permissible and can be done to the glory of God, just like eating and drinking (1 Cor. 10:31). There is no question that we need to be very careful about it, but I am yet quite unconvinced that the Bible condemns all forms of smoking as sinful.


Carrie Allen said...

Working in the healthcare field, I often hear doctors, nurses, and everyone say - "Two things will kill you overtime: Fast Food and Smoking." As Christians, we probably should try to avoid both just for the simple fact of taking care of our body.

Here is something that might interest you... very interesting study on the occasional smoker.

Scott said...

Andrew, I, too, occasionally smoke a pipe, though it is harder where I live now with no back yard to relax. (You'd think it would be easier to smoke in Europe.)

In your article, you refer to studies about cigar and pipe smoking not being harmful, which I have also heard it isn't harmful since such is not done in a chain-smoking sense like cigarettes and most people are usually relaxing while smoking a pipe or cigar. But, I was wondering your thoughts on this - How many Christians who, realizing their liberty, have chosen to smoke a pipe, cigar or occasional cigarette without first considering health risks, and then another Christian comes along and questions their intent and points out the health hazards of such practices, the occasional smoke will only then look up statistics to support their practice? So the health risks are only considered post-challenge from another Christian. Do you think this is common amongst Christians?

Hope that question made sense. Just a thought.

Dick P said...

"Less addictive?" "Significantly increases health risks?" Come on. Who are you trying to kid? These are just lame excuses for bad behavior.

Anonymous said...

Health risks are overrated.

I have inherited high cholesterol. The doctors have tried several medications to treat it as diet has no significant effect on it for me. With each medication my arms and legs would tingle and get weak. At least one of the medications decreased my lung function.

Studies say that taking the medication will lengthen my life. Is it bad behavior (or sin) for me to not take the medication?

Andrew Faris said...

Carrie: Interesting study, but also really small and short term with its measurement. I'm more curious about the long term effects. Anything you are aware of?

Scott: fair point. I actually got to thinking about the as I wrote last night- am I just projecting a bias because I want to be able to smoke my pipe? Maybe so, and I want to keep thinking about that. Good thought.

Richard: that's very helpful- I'll stop smoking now that you've convinced with my carefulness and thoughtfulness.

But seriously, that was part of my point: are you even open to the possibility? If not, why not?

Anonymous said...


Sorry, reeeaaally long post here (and for the record, I don't smoke, and I hate being around secondhand smoke).

I've followed this discussionon your site and Tim Challies' and I'm generally don't comment, but there are a few things that bother me about these discussions that I would like to point out/get your opinion on:

1) Life is multifactorial. I have a background in healthcare, too, and I've seen some horrible cancers and lung diseases, but even the highest numbers I've seen say about 25% of smokers getting lung cancer, and it's proabably closer to 15% - and that's in heavy, chronic smokers who refuse to quit (here's one article on a recent study

Now those numbers are significant, especially since the chances of people who do not smoke getting lung cancer are probably less than 1%.

But it also means that 75% to 85% of smokers don't get lung cancer. My point is smoking is one factor among many, and not the biggest factor - genetics and age are probably the most important factors.

I'm not saying you can ignore the health risk. It's real, and the thing about smoking is it's one risk factor you can usually control, unless you're addicted - which is a real concern, too. And the study Carrie pointed is also interesting, and worth keeping in mind.

I just don't like the simplistic "you smoke = you get sick and you die" formula. And, as Andrew points out, in a young, healthy adult who is not addicted and has no strong family history of cancer, it's probably not worth worrying about given all the other bad things that can happen to us on this earth.

2) The biggest long term health risks are not fast food and smoking. It's lack of exercise and stress. I'm going to assume that people who are offended by smoking and it's health risks probably also exercise regularly, so I'll leave that alone except to say it's the #1 proven thing you can do to improve long term physical, emotional and mental well being.

But stress, ah this is the one that gets me. The Bible does not say you can't smoke, so people pull out the health and addiction arguments - and those can be fair arguments.

But nothing is more poisonous to your body and more destructive to your body's natural resistance to diseases and it's ability to heal than chronic anger, bitterness, unforgiveness and WORRY. And the Bible has a whole boatload of things to say about how we are not to do any of those things. How many of you react as strongly to seeing blatant worry and bitterness in the church as you would to someone standing there smoking?

And the emotional/physical toll of being exposed to another persons anger, bitterness or worry is much worse than a little secondhand smoke, I think.

3) And finally (yes, I am coming to an end) my biggest pet peeve - health and long life are not our goals and they are not our gods. I'm with Stan on this. Health can be overrated, especially if it's an obsession, a source a constant worry and fear, or something that makes you feel justified in treating your brother for whom Christ died with any amount of disdain.

I'm not saying health is not important, or that it is not a part of God's blessings on our lives. But as much as Paul used the example of an athlete training, he also made it clear that we must die daily to anything this world has for us. And given his litany of the number of times he had been whipped and stoned and imprisoned - clearly preaching the gospel is not a healthy lifestyle.

I've heard that becoming a missionary will take 10 years off of your life expectancy, and the life you do live will likely have a lot more sickness than it would have otherwise. I doubt if anyone would argue Biblically that a Christian shouldn't become a missionary or preach the gospel because of the health risks - well, maybe a 21st-century American Christian would try to argue that. But it would not be Biblical.

Sorry, back to smoking. God knows our hearts, and He knows our bodies. We have God's Word, and it's awesome and sufficient, but also have the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of God to guide us where the Bible is silent or unclear. If your conscience bothers you about smoking, don't do it. Maybe, just maybe, that's a prompting from God becuase you're one of those 15% to 25% who would definitely get lung cancer.

But if your brother feels he can smoke with a clear conscience, honestly, what is that to you? You follow Christ.

And if by sharing a smoke and a beer your brother shines the light of the gospel in such a way that it saves even 1 person from eternal hell, are you really going to stand there and quibble about possible health risks in the face of that?

Okay, I'm done. Back to lurking...

Anonymous said...

I do apologize - that really was a rant, did not really add anything to the discussion, and was not very gracious or humble. Please forgive me for that. (and for the typos :)

And let me try again - I do think you can smoke to the glory of God. And I think you can not smoke to the glory of God, doing whatever you do for the glory of God. (I Cor. 10)

And I do think the overriding concern should be one of love and preference for others. And that may mean erring on the side of not smoking to avoid health risks, however large or small, for the sake of your loved ones and the work of the gospel, or because it troubles someone else's conscience, or because it may affect someone more directly, like someone with asthma.

I just have some trouble, obviously, with the arguments that seem to equate 'health risk' so directly to sin. That seems more cultural than Biblical to me.

And I'm not convinced that occasional smoking has no redeeming value or that the amount of risk is high enough that you should never do it.

Johnnie said...

Fascinating debate going on here. I think the main point of disagreement is this, which Andrew quotes: "smoking in all forms does increase health risks, and therefore Christians should not engage in it." If you agree with that statement, in its cut-and-dried, black-and-white statement of fact, then there is no debate. And here the analogy of the swimming pool, which I dismissed as dumb in an earlier comment, makes sense. There is "no question" that this is true: If no one had a swimming pool in their backyard, no children would die in backyard swimming pools." For Mr Bruce, this trumps all other arguments: that people with swimming pools might reap health benefits from the pool, that the chances of anyone accidently dying in that pool are teeny, tiny, miniscule...doesn't matter. It's a fact: no pools, no pool deaths.

And its a fact: no smoking, no smoking related diseases.

If you see this as something of a gray area though....if I smoke THIS amount, under THESE conditions, then the risk to my health, and the risk to others' health around me, is teeny, tiny, miniscule...well, see, that's just a different way of looking at it. Like the swimming pool: you can be ALMOST 100% certain that no one will die in your pool, but that almost is where some people draw the line.

Mr Bruce's quote, suggesting that if it "increases" health risks, then "Christians should not engage in it" is stark and simple. You either agree with it or you don't.

If you agree with it, of course, then you've opened up a lot of difficult issues. Jenny Bruce in her most recent post advocates desserts, but surely many (most? no, actually, all) desserts "increase health risks." As do double-doubles with cheese. And fried fish. And driving on a wet road. And so on. It's a hard line to adhere to...anything which increases a health risk is unChristian and should be avoided by the Christian. But you could try it.

If you don't want to adhere to that, then Andrew's post is perfectly clear and perfectly reasoned. Be smart, know the risks, know the hazards, but balance those with the benefits.

Anonymous said...

Just for fun, let's add one more to the list.

I have celiac sprue and as a result cannot eat wheat, rye or barley (actually the protien gluten).

I suggest Christian restaurant owners go completely gluten-free in their kitchens. Otherwise, people with celiac disease will become ill, some very ill. People with celiac disease have an increased chance of cancer which is lowered if a strict gluten-free diet is maintained.

In fact, I think all Christians should rid their kitchens of all wheat, rye and barley. You never know when a guest is going to inadvertently consume something you serve and become ill because of celiac disease. And since it can present with symptons any time (from birth to 100; I was 42 when diagnosed) you can't trust that your guests (and family for that matter) know if they have it or not.

How offensive it must be to those with celiac disease knowing that their health is of no consideration to some Christians.


Remember, this was just for fun. I am not recommending anyone actually go to such trouble.

Andrew Faris said...


Didn't anything? Try again- I thought that was an excellent comment through and through. Maybe that's just because I think that in general we are in agreement though!

One thing: I actually did think about the issue of prolonging life as a non-virtue for Christians, and I think that in theory, you are correct. And really I do look at much of my smoking as ministry-related in a sense (like the situations I described).

But still, there is a serious difference between foolishly throwing your life away and giving it away as a martyr in missions.

And Johnnie: well put. I think that is exactly the heart of the issue. And as I've walked around thinking about this for the last couple days, I keep saying to myself, "Am I being an idiot here?"

But then I immediately follow that with the thought, "No, I really don't think this is killing me."

Bill Faris said...

Do you see any link between this topic and the fact that you are about to marry (to quote you) a SMOKING hot blonde?

Do you think your upcoming union will pose any significant health risks?

Carrie Allen said...

Ahahaha, your dad is HILARIOUS.

Where here is one that talks about how second hand CIGAR smoke is worse than second hand cigarette smoke... and I KNOW you don't want to harm your smoking hot fiance.

This one talks about how tobacco pipes are way worse than cigarettes.

This is a long term study that I don't have time to read...

Anyway, these are all collegiate studies, so they seem pretty reliable.

Really, smoking isn't good for you... there is just no way around that fact. But like I said, fast food isn't good for you either, so who's to judge? For me, smoking comes down to WHY am I doing it. Looking at the pro's and con's.

I will smell like smoke
It is unhealthy
If one of my students see me, I could stumble them
My teeth get yellow
It's expensive
I could possibly become addicted

It's relaxing
It makes me look more "normal" of a person to non-Christians in certain situations (maybe)

To me, the con's outweigh the pro's.