The New Untouchables


A recent study in the UK found that more than half of smokers lie to family and friends about the extent of their habit. And why wouldn't they? Anti-smoking sentiment is now so prevalent that cartoons are retroactively edited to delete animated cigarettes, and movies that still allow actual smoking are castigated with the same moral fervor once (and still) directed at X-rated films.

Nothing has helped me understand the social impact of stigmatizing “illegal drug users” as much as watching the stigmatization of smokers over the last decade or so. Quite apart from whether smoking is as damaging as reported, the marginalization of those who choose to do it has been instructive.

Once a socially respectable and sexy practice, lighting up a cigarette now converts the puffer into a pariah and even into a child abuser by means of the “toxic” secondhand smoke. Companies require smokers to conduct their filthy habit on the pavement outside, despite subzero weather. Some refuse to extend health insurance to smokers; others refuse to hire them at all. Public areas open to the wind and weather have been closed to smokers. Weighing the smoking-status of battling parents is a growing trend in child custody cases.

All this has occurred while cigarettes are still legal and tobacco companies reap billions in profits. While “victims” of obesity receive love and sympathy, “victims” of smoking receive hatred and contempt. And it has occurred despite the fact that — unlike illegal drugs — no one seriously accuses cigarettes of causing prostitution, theft, impaired driving, or reduced judgment. Nor are cigarettes a slippery slope to heroin. But despite the absence of such horrendous accusations, the smoker is despised and shamed. Even as she hands over more and more tax money for the privilege of consuming a legal product, the government targets the smoker with panic-inducing campaigns such as the one underway from the CDC, an agency that has invested $54 million tax dollars to promote televised “public service” announcements and posters with revolting images.

I've watched in wonder as society has created a reviled class of people virtually out of thin air.

Share This



The excuse for cigarette sin taxes is the public spending on health care for smokers. If one mentions that smokers use less health care overall (we die quicker and younger)one hears crickets for a few seconds before one's audience's minds slide away and they return to their previous position; smokers are evil and deserve punishment.


Thus, the appeal of using tobacco, and even illegal drugs? New users start up at higher rates every year. Probably, because of the taboo factor. If someone tells me not to do something, I'm much more likely to investigate why I should do it.

Steve Murphy

Excellent essay. I have seen non-smokers cough and wave a hand as they passed a person who was smoking outside and at least 25 feet off their path. If I were in the stigmatization business, I would castigate the smug and pathetic hypochondriacs more so than the smoker. They apparently believe that the occasional second hand smoke wafting by will cause their hearts to fail and tumors to sprout. Then, of course, there are the magnificently sensitive who live in fear of third hand smoke - second hand smoke that clings to things like their clothes and hair. The government has spent many billions of dollars on studies to show the harmful effects of such exposure. Although it's not clear that second hand or third hand smoke causes any harm, I'm holding out until the fourth hand smoke studies emerge - showing the harm done to people who have to listen to victims of third hand smoke complain of their plight.

© Copyright 2020 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.