Yesterday, when I was reading my super dry book on counseling a thought that has sort of occurred to me before surfaced in my head. I am wondering how much of cigarette addiction is socially constructed. I am not saying that there is no pharmacological aspect to dependance on cigarette or other tobacco products, but that the idea that a cigarette smoker is an “addict” not unlike a heroin addict is a social construction. This paper was my inspiration for this post. It is written by Dr. Claire E. Sterk a professor at  Emory University. The whole paper does an excellent job of demonstrating how our views of drug use are largely determined by societal views of that drug use. 

For example- the way cigarettes are sold almost implies that you will become addicted if you try smoking even once so we might as well give you 20-25 cigarettes to get you on your way. Some PSA’s that run have this implication as well. Like these ones:

Both of these imply if you try smoking, you might as well be attempting suicide because you will become addicted and you will ultimately die from it. A little extreme for a legal substance that does not even cause impairment. Not to mention, how believable is that to teens (the obvious target audience)?

Sterk had this to say about the message we are sending to youth about drugs:

One may wonder why our adolescents and young adults harbor doubts about our health education, especially if they know someone who has used drugs or if they themselves have tried an illegal substance, without immediately becoming an addict.  It appears that more nuanced prevention messages that are grounded in real experience may prove more effective in warning people of the risks associated with use.  Such an approach also would prompt us to raise scientific questions about what it is we aim to prevent.  Do we want to prevent any exposure to drugs?  Do we want to prevent any use?  Are we willing to accept temporary experimental use?  Or, are we worried about escalated use and addiction and its consequences?

In fact, I think it was fear of addiction deterred and terrified me for so many years. When I was 12, I would have these dreams of taking one drag off of a cigarette and being hopelessly addicted. I took one drag off a cigarette and I liked it, but am I a hopeless addict? I’m not even sure I would call myself that if I ever do let go completely and become addicted. Why should I be considered hopeless if I am doing something I like? I can go to a bar or the liquor store and purchase one beer if I know that is all I want, but if I want one cigarette I have buy a whole pack. It seems silly actually. This quote from Sterk’s paper sums the double standard up quite nicely:

Whereas smoking one cigarette is considered too much, unhealthy, and unacceptable, the limits on the extent of alcohol consumption appear more ambiguous.  

A bit ridiculous I think. The reason why cigarettes are not sold in singles or packs of less numerous quantities is to deter people from both trying smoking but also deter people from occasional smoking. At least this is what I assume the function of this is. I can buy one cigar from the store, but not one cigarette. I thought about this more as I walked home from studying. If I were to tell someone- I have a glass of wine every day at dinner, they would probably think/ask- Hmmm likes her wine or do you prefer red or white? Where do you buy your wine? Do you have a favourite varietal of grape etc. If you told someone, I enjoy smoking one cigarette every day after supper or when I get home from work, the question every non-smoker asks is “You smoke so little, why don’t you quit?” No questions on menthol or regular or brands. And if you tell them don’t  want quit because you like it, they probably do not comprehend how something seemingly so nasty to a non-smoker could be enjoyable and further because it is so nasty, you must be addicted and that is why you enjoy it so much and don’t want to quit.

Here is another example: Most adults like coffee. Coffee contains caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, that eventually can result in dependance. I would also say that like cigarettes, the psychological aspect is probably harder to kick than the physical aspect. I say this having only ever quit caffeine, and not having a physical dependance on nicotine. I actually did not even realize I was dependent on caffeine when one day I was studying in the library, and my head was pounding, I couldn’t concentrate and it occurred to me, maybe I should get some green tea- my caffeine source of choice. I was not getting it for the caffeine though, or at least not consciously. I thought that the act of getting the tea would be a nice break from the studying. Within about 5 minutes, a few sips into the tea, my headache was gone and I could concentrate. I was physically dependent on caffeine. Did I freak out? No. Becoming addicted to caffeine is almost like a right of passage in our society. No one would tell me “Maybe you should quit.” I did quit, although I didn’t find it that hard. The first few days I had a headache and I felt like I was in sort of a daze and always tired. But I didn’t really have any cravings or anything like that because I was not psychologically addicted. I started up the caffeine again because there was really no point in staying away from coffee, tea and chocolate just to say I was caffeine free. I have embraced the caffeinated beverages and would not be surprised if I am indeed dependent.

I mean- there are many ways that drinking a cup of coffee is very unlike smoking a cigarette, but as far as the effects of the drug goes neither impairs someone to the extent that they would harm someone. Smoking is much more harmful health-wise, which is why it has become so outlawed in our health obsessed society.

You know what bugs me more than anything? The fact that I am letting this social construction get in the way of doing something I like doing. Something, I might add, that is perfectly legal. Yet, why do I feel like such a deviant every time I light up?