It’s common knowledge that smoking is addictive and bad for your health. That’s why I was baffled freshman year to find that many of my friends smoked. Some smoked casually, others only socially, some daily, but nobody ever brought up the whole cancer thing. Death and judgment being uncomfortable topics, I never really broached the subject. Honestly, I wasn’t judging, but I genuinely did not understand how people could be so indifferent to the consequences of their actions.
Over spring break, I emailed my roommate and another friend who smoked. Don’t you care about the health impacts? I asked. Back at school, I started asking more people about their smoking habits.
What startled me about everyone’s replies was how much they resonated. I’ll give you a general summary of the responses: Smoking is enjoyable. The very act of breathing in deeply and breathing out smoke is undeniably cool. It is relaxing, a way to clear your head, a way to bond with another person outside on a casual smoke break or to have time to yourself. It is reflective. There is also something about the legacy of smoking that adds to its appeal, whether it is the images of the beautiful, wealthy woman or the rugged steel worker. Everyone in America smoked. There is the sheer romance of living on vapor.
On cancer, the general response was either, “I don’t smoke often enough to worry about it,” or, “I know I’m not addicted, I’m young and there is no reason to quit now.”
As I read and listened to my friends’ responses, they seemed darkly familiar. I am a meat-eater who believes deeply that the meat industry in America is inexcusably destructive. We’ve so redesigned our poultry and livestock that we essentially eat monsters, animals bred to be killed and eaten — creatures alive in only the vaguest sense.
There is no way for our environment to absorb all the waste produced by animal agriculture. Factory farms’ fumes are notoriously noxious. We grow absurd amounts of grain — about 30 percent of the world’s land surface is used to feed animals — that could go to feed people instead of all these animals that nobody needs to eat. The details are actually nauseating when you allow yourself to read about what you are eating — if you don’t believe me, look up maceration in chick culling, pink slime or fecal soup.
Over break, as I was contemplating my smoking friends’ responses, I found myself at a dinner next to a vegan couple. We vigorously discussed the horrors of the meat industry while I calmly ate a steak. My friends suddenly made sense to me.
Freshman year, I was baffled that anyone could dismiss the risk of cancer for the enjoyment and romance of a cigarette. In his book “Eating Animals,” Jonathan Safran Foer argues that once you know how much cruelty and damage goes into each bite of meat, you must reconsider whether its taste justifies the eating. Yet like many meat-eaters, I’ve dismissed all the moral and practical concerns of meat in America today for taste, ease and convenience. As I read my friends’ responses to why they smoke — it’s enjoyable, it’s social — I heard my own justification for being a meat-eater.
Unlike some of my friends, I don’t have a problem with killing animals for consumption. As someone who keeps kosher, I’ve also always found solace in the six-hour waiting period required between eating meat and eating dairy. This ensures that you notice that you are eating what was once living. If you have chicken for dinner, then you can’t have ice cream for dessert. You can’t ignore the fact that somehow your mouth has been contaminated, as it were, by the dead food.
I imagine that as difficult as it was for me to understand people smoking in an age in which the risks are fully known, it will be hard for my children to understand how I ate meat when the evils of the meat industry were known.
This spring break taught me something sad but true about my own values and internal logic. I was disturbed freshman year by the smokers, when I should have been disturbed by myself.
Shira Telushkin is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.