Moral Theology - November 2012 | Diocese of Lansing

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Moral Theology - November 2012

Is smoking immoral?

What does the Catholic Church teach about the morality of smoking cigarettes? It certainly does not explicitly condemn smoking as intrinsically evil; indeed, it teaches that the use of tobacco could be temperate. The Catechism states: “The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine.” (2290) This indicates that there could be some moderate use of tobacco that may be moral.

What does the Catechism have in mind? The occasional cigar or pipe smoking? Is the smoking of many cigarettes a day always intemperate? Usually?

Whether something is temperate or not depends upon a balance of goods and harms. Many of the things we do, such as playing sports, riding motorcycles or drinking alcohol, come with the risk of harm. Just because something threatens harm does not make it sinful.

We all now are fairly well educated on the harms of cigarette smoking; they are many and serious. It contributes to a large number of health problems and is a major cause of death. Moreover, smokers are more likely to engage in alcohol abuse and a host of other risky behaviors. Smokers die 13 to 14 years earlier than others. Buying cigarettes is expensive, as is the health care to deal with it. Moreover, the fact that most smokers are addicted to smoking indicates that they have given up some of their freedom. All of that would seem to indicate smoking cigarettes is a sinful action for most everyone who smokes. Not a mortal sin, but a fairly serious venial sin.

What justifications could there be for smoking? I Googled the phrase “Why I love smoking cigarettes” and came up with an amazing number of justifications, ranging from being a stimulant, to a sedative, to a great aide for enabling – and preventing – social interactions. People claim it helps them look sophisticated, or helps them express rebellion or acts as a reward or motivation. Some use smoking to kill time, or like to see the smoke move in the air, or like to play with fire, among others. Most of these goods could be achieved otherwise, in ways without the harms of tobacco smoking.

Very few of my friends smoke; one who does seems to need it much like others need an anti-depressant. When he tries to quit, his normal irritability skyrockets and his extremely high rate of productivity grinds to a halt. I have read of people with mental illness who are greatly calmed by smoking cigarettes; their tendency to violence is greatly curtailed. In such cases, the benefits from smoking may outweigh the harms.

But whenever the same benefits can be gained without commensurate harm, we have an obligation to use the harmless alternatives.

Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.