In a Blue Haze: Smoking and Bahá’í Ethics

Udo Schaefer


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Smoking as a Social Problem

Smoking does not satisfy any basic human need such as eating and drinking. It is an artificial desire to increase one's feeling of comfort and pleasure. Therefore, only humans smoke; animals do not. Of course, there is no objection to fact that it is an "artificial" and not a "natural" need. Neither fine cuisine, nor listening to music, nor any of the arts is "natural". They are all needs of a higher kind that have become a part of culture, and it is to culture that the chairman of the German Federation of Cigarette Manufacturers[1] Günter Wille, appeals. He sees culture legitimatising smoking: "Smoking is part of culture."[2] But it is not that easy. Many atrocities hiding behind the halo of culture are repugnant by any objective moral standards; as examples we only need to cite the killing of new-born girls in ancient Arabia or China, the burning of widows in India, or the female circumcision and infibulation still practised in large parts of Africa.

For most of our evolution, people survived without smoking. However, it seems that as early as the time of the Roman Empire people smoked. This was not tobacco, of course, which was not yet known by Europeans, but rather cyprus grass, coltsfoot, and lavender. They smoked more for therapeutic reasons than for pleasure. The first Europeans who brought the smoking of tobacco to Europe were sailors who had accompanied Columbus on his voyages to the "New World". There the smoking of tobacco was widespread amongst almost all of the indigenous peoples of North America except those in the Arctic regions. For the most part this was for ritual purposes.[3] Among Europeans tobacco was used initially in Spain, and was seen more as a medicine than a stimulant. In the sixteenth century tobacco was grown as an ornamental plant in French gardens where it was considered a panacea against the plague, toothache, gout, colic, and tetanus. Smoking was introduced to England by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1586, where it soon spread to all classes of society. The "drinking of tobacco",[4] as it was then called, migrated via Holland and France across the Rhine. During the Thirty Years' War it was spread all over central Europe, especially by Swedish soldiers. There were, however, numerous prohibitions made against it, for example by the Czar in 1634, or by Sultan Amurat IV in 1610. The punishment for violating the Czar's edict was the loss of one's nose. Sultan Amurat's edict went further in that smoking was a capital offence. Frederick the Great prohibited smoking in the streets in 1764, oddly enough because it was considered a fire hazard. With the medical application of pulverised tobacco, the Spanish, French, and Portuguese created a new stimulant, snuff. Compared to snuff, smoking was slower in finding disciples.

Most often a pipe was used for smoking. It was only after the Crimean war, when the English and French had become acquainted with the Oriental cigarette, that cigarette smoking became more popular. The first factory in Germany to produce cigarettes was established in 1862 in Dresden with seven employees. After the First World War tobacco products became mass consumer items. Smoking became an accepted habit practised by all classes of society. Tobacco became a popular drug, with the tobacco industry a powerful sector of the economy. Every year 14,6 billion marks are spent by German citizens. On average, every adult in the world smokes a thousand cigarettes per year.[5]

Tobacco smoking has always been perceived as something which does not afford the same pleasure to those who are passively affected by it, who "suffer" it, as to those who actively indulge in it. As early as the seventeenth century there were handbills against the smoking of tobacco because of its annoying nature. King James I of England wrote a polemic pamphlet[6] against the "stinking weed", which is amusing and worth reading even today. It caused a tremendous stir across the country, but could not put a stop to the habit of smoking which had already gained far too much ground. A clerical writer by the name of Tesauro wrote in his "Philosophia Moralis" published in the 17th century: "What a shameless spectacle it is when people stick a convoluted horn into their mouth stuffed with that sooting and fuming filth, the hellish vapour of which they suck up through the gullet to thrust it out through the nose, just as the steeds of Diomedes and the bulls of Jason snorted sparks and flames through the nostrils."[7]

Goethe had a violent aversion to this habit: "Smoking makes one stupid; it turns one incapable of thinking and rhyming. Also, it is only for loafers, for people who are bored, who sleep one third of their lives, waste the other third with eating, drinking or other necessary or unnecessary things, and although saying vita brevis, don't even know what to do with the last third. For such lazy Turks, the loving intercourse with pipes and the cosy spectacle of smoke-clouds that they blow into the air is profound entertainment because it helps them pass the hours..." Goethe thought that "smoking goes along with the drinking of beer, which cools down the heated palate" and he was afraid that if this habit continued as it appeared it would, "after two or three generations it will become obvious what the beer bellies and puffing rascals have made of Germany.... And what is the cost of this horror! Now already twenty five million Taler go up in smoke... And not a hungry person is fed and not a naked one clothed. What could be done with this money! Intrinsic in smoking is also an utter discourtesy, an impertinent unsociability. Smokers raise a stench far and wide and suffocate every honest human being who is unwilling to smoke for his own self-defence. Is anyone then capable of entering a smoker's room without a feeling of nausea? And who ever can remain therein without perishing?"[8]

There are various reasons why smoking has increasingly become a problem and why it has become discredited over the past few decades. The first is the strong increase in the number of people using it. The age at which the habit of smoking is picked up is dropping and is now below ten years of age. During the seventies, a permissive and opportunistic educational system oriented towards an anti-authoritarian model promoted this trend through the establishment of smoking rooms or smokers' corners in schools, from an educational point of view a terribly wrong decision which many would like to reverse today. According to a report by the Institute for Preventive Pneumology[9] in Nuremberg, one out of ten boys has experimented with smoking before the age of six. Among ten year olds, sixty percent of the boys and half of the girls have tried smoking.[10] In addition, the emancipation of women was accompanied by the adoption of behavioral patterns which were initially "masculine", in particular smoking. The slogan "The German woman does not smoke" may have prevailed during the Third Reich, but today's smokers are mainly recruited from the ranks of young girls, a development that is accompanied by an alarming number of women dying of lung cancer.[11]

In addition, the growing recklessness of many smokers who see it as their inalienable human right to smoke anywhere at any time without having to ask permission, has resulted in the fact that fewer and fewer non-smokers are willing to tolerate their behaviour. However, an awareness of the problem has only emerged since it has become known what an enormous public health, threat smoking represents[12] and what an economic strain it puts on health insurance companies as a whole[13]. Smoking is no longer accepted as a matter of course. The mood has changed.[14] It has been recognised that smoking is part of the environmental problem. At the first European tobacco conference in 1988 in Madrid the World Health Organization (WHO) passed a "Charter against Tobacco" which states "air free of tobacco smoke is an essential part of our basic right to healthy and unpolluted air."[15]

In the United States, where 350,000 annual deaths are attributed to smoking, the protection of non-smokers has advanced considerably. Smoking is prohibited on all domestic flights as well as in public transport, taxis, libraries, banks, restaurants, and public buildings. Those who want to smoke in the Pentagon, one of the largest buildings in the world, can at best do so only in the restroom. Smoking has become taboo in many circles in the USA and can result in social ostracism. It is increasingly more the behaviour of the lower classes. This is due in part to an aggressive anti-smoking campaign, for instance, buttons carrying the slogan: "Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray!" More and more companies prohibit smoking. Many hire only non-smokers. Only about 26% of the US population smokes.[16] In most East European countries there are strict regulations for the protection of non-smokers. In 1993, France prohibited smoking in all public buildings, in public transportation, and even in restaurants.

By contrast, Germany with its 150,000 nicotine-related deaths every year[17], appears liberal. Owing to generous party donations from the cigarette industry, most members of parliament rarely think of legal restrictions. Education is relied upon, as if that were enough to provide even a modest protection for non-smokers! In the fall of 1985 the German tobacco industry elected Norbert Blüm, the pipe smoking Minister for Social Affairs, as advertising spokesman of the year by coining the phrase: "Free smoke for free citizens."[18] No wonder that the spokesman of the German Federation of Cigarette Manufacturers commends Germany for being "one of the most tolerant societies around". Nevertheless, in the interest of protecting non-smokers, public authorities and ministries have considerably restricted smoking in public buildings and offices. Moreover, there are a number of legal decisions today which guarantee a smoke-free workplace for the non-smoker. One can expect that urgently needed legal restrictions will be introduced at a faster pace at the European Community level than they will be in Germany itself.

The tobacco industry opposes these trends with an annual advertising budget of DM 300 million in Germany alone. They emphatically challenge the health hazards of smoking, which are scientifically supported by the results of more than 30,000 studies, and they demand tolerance from non-smokers. The chairman of the German Federation of Cigarette Manufacturers, Günter Wille, saw smoking as an "enjoyment" and the anti-smoking campaign as "a patronising attempt by 'know-it-all' ascetics who would deny adult citizens the right to choose the wrong kind of pleasure"[19]. Wille died of cancer in 1993 at the age of 51.

It is impudence for smokers to appeal to the tolerance of non-smokers with the argument that smokers are among the most tolerant people in the world since no smoker has ever complained about someone else not smoking. Thieves might use the same abstruse logic to lament the absence of tolerance in their victims. In a way, one could say this is like comparing apples to oranges: it compares an annoying, jeopardising, and obviously harmful behaviour to mere inconsequential inaction.

In any case, the issue of smoking is a highly controversial social problem. It is difficult to de-emotionalise discussions about smoking when we all make judgements according to our own personal involvement: smokers because they want to smoke unrestrictedly, non-smokers because they insist on the right to unpolluted air.

Among Bahá'ís, this problem has hardly been discussed, even though it does exist. This ethical deficit only occurred to me recently while reading 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Law-i-Dukhn, known as the "Tablet of Purity". In this text we find the following sentence: "On receipt of this missive, the friends will surely, by whatever means and even over a period of time, forsake this pernicious habit. Such is my hope."[20] After more than seventy years this hope is still unfulfilled. Hence, it is high time to examine this topic.[21]

From this Tablet, it is evident that the Bahá'í view on smoking is negative. One could content oneself in referring to this text alone for the Bahá'í stance. But 'Abdu'l-Bahá has only discussed smoking in the context of a single, although substantial, aspect: that of "purity". Simply presenting this moral value more fully and further elucidating its importance from the point of view of religious history would be a fascinating task that might lead to a better evaluation of this value and its rank in the hierarchy of values, and in the final analysis to a deeper understanding of the Bahá'í Faith itself. But there are a number of other approaches which urgently want consideration in this context and which show that smoking is ethically far more questionable than it appears at first sight. This topic provides an opportunity for delineating the structure of Bahá'í ethics.

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