The Higher Hedonism

Smoking has become highly moralized in American society. Not only is it not cool, it's stigmatized.

But the point that I'd like to make about this is the relationship between smoking and socioeconomic status. As a 2012 scientific review put it, "Smoking prevalence is higher among disadvantaged groups." Which means that smoking is just one more way the rich can look down upon and morally judge the poor.

Why do the poor smoke more than the rich?

In Texas where I live a pack of cigarettes costs about $6.00. There are about twenty cigarettes in a pack. The average smoker smokes a half pack or less a day.

Basically, for about $3.00 you've got yourself a pleasurable activity to carry you through the day. Hedonically speaking, that's not a bad deal.

Of course, there is more to smoking than hedonic pleasure. There is the cancer risk, the odors to contend with (on your clothing or person and in your car or dwelling), and that social stigma we mentioned.

In the face of those negatives the rich opt for different pleasures. You know what I like to do? I like to go out to eat. Or to a movie. Or read a book. Or go on a vacation.

But all those hedonic pleasures cost more money. Let alone requiring a car. For example, it costs my family of four about $20 to eat at Taco Bell. Taco Bell. Twenty dollars. And anything beyond fast food is way, way more expensive than that.

Here's my point. When the rich want to do something pleasurable they usually go out to eat or to some entertainment. Or they go shopping.

And on top of all that, the rich go on vacations where they spend hundreds and thousands of dollars.

That's what hedonism looks like for the rich. Eating out, shopping, going to entertainments, taking vacations.

The poor, by contrast, smoke. It's a pleasure they can afford. But at the end of the day, despite the moralization smoking gets, it's no less hedonistic than the pleasures of the rich.

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13 thoughts on “The Higher Hedonism”

  1. I agree with the goal, but I'd critique the implicit rational choice model that I think animates the post, with statements like, "Hedonically speaking, that's not a bad deal" and "In the face of those negatives the rich opt for different pleasures. You know what I like to do? I like to go out to eat." The rational choice model is particularly inappropriate in cases like addiction; most of the smokers I know (regardless of income) wish they didn't smoke. For the broke smokers I know, the cost just adds more anxiety. They prefer different preferences, and yet their flesh won't do what they will. Polling shows that most smokers have actually tried to quit multiple times, and failed.


    I think we can see smoking as an addiction rather than a reasonable choice, and still avoid stigmatizing people who do it. We don't need dubious utilitarian ethics to rationalize our unease with the way people judge the poor. In fact, I think the rational choice element dulls the ethical point. We should avoid judging outgroup members because it is wrong to do, and because we have a healthy fear and awareness that those judgments will be measured back to us. We all struggle with our addictions. That sucks, and we all need help overcoming them. When I see someone suffering from a noxious addiction, I try (and sometimes don't fail) to ask myself, "What are my own noxious addictions?"

  2. Great observations. I intentionally stayed away from the addiction aspect to keep the post simple and focused on pleasures, those available to the poor and those available to the rich. But the addiction aspect needs to be talked about so I'm glad you addressed it.

  3. I also find it ironic that there is a movement to legalize smoking marijuana, let me write that again, s m o k i n g marijuana, but at the same time we make it illegal to smoke cigarettes.
    Another point, I took a vacation this year, first one of this type in years. We saved up for it and didn't "go into credit card debt" to do so. How much of a finnancial strain on a budget is smoking?

    Finally, besides the risk of cancer, smoking leads to emphysema, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, etc. etc. I don't think my rare vacation trip will do that much damage.

  4. I talked about smoking a lot at my last church because it seemed such an obvious example of addiction--precisely because everyone I knew who smoked said, with a certain amount of shame, that they wished they didn't. But I think at times it sounded like I was picking on a particular disadvantaged group.


    Perhaps the problem is that the richer you are, the more likely it is that your addictions (including Taco Bell?) will not be obviously unhealthy, or even obviously addictions. It's parallel to the use of "bad language"--people in higher social classes have as much "unwholesome talk" as people in lower social classes, but a sarcastic snub is not as obvious as the F-word. Lazy moralists (including most preachers) point to the obvious examples, and as a result, they make it sound like they are hostile to the vices that are most characteristic of the poor.

  5. Point well taken. At Grace Fellowship often poor smokers stand outside and usually off to the side, furtively taking their drags. These folks are friendly but obviously desparate for a shot of nicotine comfort before coming in to the meal and assembly. Probably none among the non smokers even mentions it. But sometimes in the prayer and announcement period someone will say with pride, I've been off tobacco for ........ Days now! And everyone will clap and cheer and pat them on the back. We are all happy....rich (comparatively so) and poor alike...about this small but significant victory in the quest to overcome our demons. There's not a lot of preaching about it, but we all seem to know that we're in this together.

    The same observation could be made with junk food intake. I used to frequent a grocery store in Old East Dallas that inevitably had shoppers lined up with tons of junk food purchases on food stamps. The choices weren't wise by many standards, but they were at least in ways understandable. Easing psychic pain, seeking relief in the midst of abismal circumstances is an almost ubiquitous quest. Let's hear it for the leveling and forgiving and encouraging ethos of simple discipleship. Like many moral issues, subjects get quickly complex. How hard to acknowledge that we are ALL ultimately in the same boat...desparately seeking the miracle of an overcoming word of solidarity and hope.

  6. Don,


    At $3/day smoking costs ~$1000/year, not enough to cover the trip you took I'm guessing. Also the various ways our society attacks people without a lot of money makes it difficult for them to save up. Smaller costs spread throughout the budget cycle, particularly any which can be scaled back when money is tight (between the rent check and the next paycheck for example) are much more reachable. to give an example my bank charges me $15/month for my account unless I maintain an average balance of over $2500. If I was putting aside my cigarette money for a trip that would be 15% of my funds gone before anything else hit like an unexpected car repair issue or medical expenses.


    As for Marijuana the health damage from cannabis doesn't really compare to tobacco. If someone smoked 10 joints per day then it might but that would be someone who had a serious problem, not the average smoker. In addition our hypothetical 10 joint/day smoker would not experience physical withdrawal issues if they attempted to stop the way a nicotine addict would. There might be psychological issues, in fact at that point I strongly suspect there would be, but physical addiction would not be one.

  7. I think we are always tempted to focus on the sins of others.


    And stepping back, I don't really know what I'm trying to say in this post. Obviously, I don't want to minimize the addictive aspects of smoking. I'm just noting the socioeconomic divide when it comes to smoking. Maybe that divide is economics, maybe it's socialization, maybe it's IQ. I'd always rather look at situational aspects (e.g., economics, socialization) rather than dispositional ones (e.g., IQ), but at the end of the day it doesn't much matter as the outcome is that the poor engage in a habit that many, if not most, of the rich feel, viscerally, to be disgusting and revolting. (Everything I describe in Unclean comes into play here.) And that has a dehumanizing effect. It's that instinctive dehumanization we feel toward smokers, most of whom are poor, that I'm trying to focus on.

  8. Don't you know that the rich and wealthy are privileged to engage in whatever behavior because they are rich and wealthy? Having wealth justifies idleness, non-productive lifestyle, justification for greed, any type pleasure, and the right to judge the vulgar masses for their sins.

  9. I think what is interesting in this is that the divergent trends in smoking by SES started to become apparent in the 70's but the social stigmatization aspect didn't really start to become a factor until the 90's and really kick in until the last decade or so. A quick search hasn't found any good longitudinal studies on this (except one which doesn't start until 2001 at which point a lot of the trends have been well underway) however I strongly suspect that it wasn't until smoking became publicly identified as a vice of the poor that the moral aspect was added in.


    Aside from the health aspects and addiction piece of it the question is how we treat people who engage in behavior based on expectations about social power. If we only start publicly condemning the people who do something once they are already safely situated at the bottom of the social hierarchy then we are just using the arguments as a way to justify our existing social structures and preconceptions about morality. The other piece then is the idea, prevalent in our society, that the poor are that way for a reason. If they would just do this, or not do that, they could change their basic patterns of life. This ignores the fact that at different places in the SES spectrum incentives are very different. Ta-Nehsi Coates writes a lot about how the patterns of behavior which served him well growing up in the 80's in Baltimore no longer worked when he was an editor at the Atlantic and being invited to the Aspen Ideas Festival. This doesn't mean that the behaviors from his childhood were "worse" and the ones he uses now are "better", just that each were appropriate to the circumstances he was in and those have changed. Trying to moralize without understanding the context that creates those reactions often, even if it isn't intended, results in the use of privilege as a weapon to force people into abandoning rational choices for their circumstances for less optimal ones.

  10. All I know is I hate cigarettes - a way for the wealthy tobacco companies to take advantage of the poor - and they killed my grandpa at age 56, and I was 7. I hate what took him from me. I understand the addiction. I don't preach to anyone. Everyone I know who smokes is far from poor, except for those at our homeless ministry. I don't look down on them, because I have my own bad habits. But I will always hate cigarettes.

  11. I remember, in my youth, the days of condemning smoking from the pulpit (usually while the deacons were in front of the building smoking.) I remember hearing how awful it was to pollute and destroy the temple of God. Now that we know what we know about food, why don't we hear condemnations about sugar?

    We all have our vices. Some drink. Some smoke. I eat.

    Interesting post.

  12. There's one other reason to smoke - it inhibits hunger. It is cheaper to smoke, even at $6.00 a pack, than to eat in many cities in America. That's why a number of poor people throughout history have started smoking, so they can go longer without food.

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