Lately — my last few airline flights — I’ve been listening to the in-flight comedy channels. This was how I discovered Bob Newhart and his monologues. These are things where he takes one side of a conversation and leaves you to imagine the rest. There’s one that shows up quite often, where he takes one side of a conversation with Sir Walter Raleigh, who has just discovered tobacco and is sending eight tons of it over to England as an early sample.

Now, as Newhart points out, the uses of tobacco aren’t exactly obvious: you stick it up your nose, or roll it up in paper, stick it in your mouth, set fire to it, and breathe in the smoke. One wonders exactly how these uses were discovered. But these days smokers are a persecuted species, we know that. And I have a suggestion: I think smoking should be reclassified as a religion. In some ways this is already beginning to happen in any case.

Take FOREST, for example. According to FOREST, there is no medically proven link between passive smoking and lung cancer. Twenty years ago, the tobacco industry generally was saying the same thing about smoking itself, even, as the 1970s book Smoke Rings points out, in the face of medical evidence showing the opposite. This article of belief is both pseudoscientific and incomplete: lots of other medical conditions such as heart disease and emphysema are either caused by or worsened by exposure to tobacco smoke, and the children of smokers are well known to have more bronchial and respiratory problems. But point this out, and you run the risk of being labelled a “health fascist”, although this term is mostly reserved for government ministers and doctors who set targets for reducing smoking.

Reclassifying themselves as a religion would solve a number of problems for smokers at a stroke. For a start, there could be no more talk of government proposals setting targets for reducing smoking: we don’t set targets for reducing the numbers of Jews, Christians, Muslims, or even Hare Krishnas, who like smokers practice their religion publicly and sometimes disruptively.

Medical practitioners who refuse to treat smokers for illnesses linked to smoking would be guilty of religious persecution. Better still, smokers could have their own medical practitioners, just like Christian Scientists do, who understand and cater to their religious practices.

Best of all from the smokers’ point of view, they would be able to make a persuasive argument that the government would have to stop taxing cigarettes and tobacco, since that would be equivalent to taxing religious practices. The money thus saved could be collected by the temples smokers would set up for their religious services (which would no doubt replace singing hymns with ritualistic smoking) and used to fund a variety of smoking community needs.

All this would have useful implications for other types of drug use and addictions. Marijuana smokers, for example, could claim status as a heretical sect, as could crack smokers (these might be the dangerous fanatics that all religions have to have). Alcoholics would have to found their own religion, of course.

All this would mandate changes for the self-help movement, too, some of which already has some religious aspects. Members of any 12-step program, for example, call on the help of a Higher Power (defined however each individual member likes, so it doesn’t have to be specifically a god-like figure) to help them stop doing whatever destructive things they’ve been doing — drinking, gambling, overeating, smoking, or inflicting their chaotic emotional states on their loved ones.

Such self-help groups rarely talk about scientific evidence: telling someone smoking or drinking is bad for them generally doesn’t help them stop in any case. They rely instead on shared experiences first of all to show that quitting is possible and second of all to help members with specific problems by giving them a chance to hear how other members have coped with the same problems.

In this sense, reclassifying smoking as a religious practice merely confirms the setup we already have, except that smokers and anti- smokers could battle it out among themselves without reference to anything or anyone else. They don’t need science for this, and don’t use it. The time society at large now spends getting wound up in these battles could be given to finding homes for the conscientiously objecting non-smoking children of smokers, say. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry would be saved a lot of marketing costs, since the temples would obviously want to do their own missionary work to find new members; they could take over the third-world outreach work already set in place by the tobacco companies.

They would do well to take as their role model in all this the Catholic Church, which deems the health risks of pregnancy and overpopulation irrelevant in its campaign against birth control on moral grounds. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether that’s better or worse than their present role model, which seems to be those creationists who insist that “evolution is only a theory” and classify their own theories as scientific.

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