TELUSHKIN: Between smokers and vegans

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


  • The Anti-Yale

    Both my parents died of smoking related lung diseases. While I was going to Div school in the 1976-80, I gave up trying to influence them to stop smoking My mother died at 73 in 1985, my father at 78 in 1992.

    IT’s THEIR life, I said, and butted out.


  • GeoJoe

    Yo, being self-aware is NOT a good thing unless the self-awareness allows you to actually change your behavior. People might applaud you for being courageous enough to identify your own weaknesses, but I think we should demand a little more of ourselves. Smoking is horrible for your health; eating meat is horrible for animals and the planet. Fortunately, it’s well within your power to stop doing both, for the benefit of all. When you lazily resign yourself to the status quo, it’s… depressing, to put it mildly, and not something that should be trumpeted in the YDN. Now, I was hoping that your column would end with you saying that you had changed your behavior, and changed your friends’. That would have been worth writing.

    And I just don’t believe your last sentence. You can’t really think that you should be disturbed by yourself, otherwise you might consider changing your actions. In fact, you’ve rationalized that what you’re doing is totally fine; too bad no one has offered you persuasive arguments to the contrary.

  • River_Tam

    This is dumb.

    The question of whether eating meat is ethically justifiable (I think it is) is up for ethical debate. The question is an “ought” one.

    The question of whether smoking causes lung cancer is not a normative question but a positive one (ie: an “is” question). The answer is that smoking undeniably causes a host of respiratory health effects from shortness of breath to lung cancer and everything in between, and people who say “there’s no reason to quit now” and “I don’t smoke enough to worry about it” are idiots.

    The only good reason to smoke is if you truly believe that the satisfaction of smoking now outweighs the health consequences later. And if you believe that, good for you. Go smoke. But sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the consequences is just silly.

    Also, my opinions on JSF when it comes to this can best be summarized by someone else:

    > I am trying so hard to be nice to Jonathan Safran Foer, by which I mean I am trying to forget he exists on this planet. His book “Eating Animals”, however, is making this goal very, very difficult. It was bad enough when he was writing shitty novels, but now he’s indulging in my least favorite form of nonfiction: the “I have never thought about this thing before until now, and despite the fact that other people have thought about this for years and wrestle daily with the implications, I think my brand new thoughts should be shared with the world.” Whatever the topic — religion, marriage, gender, food politics — the books are always shallow, yet for some reason a lot of people take them seriously.

    • nick

      the ethics of eating meat is not telushkin’s focus in discussing the negativity of the meat industry.

      while smoking concentrates many negative effects inside the smoker, there are also huge environmental problems stemming from its production. similarly with meat, research is increasingly demonstrating that the amount of it americans eat is extremely bad for one’s health, while also causing massive damage to the environment and a host of social problems (i.e. devoting massive resources to the growth of meat instead of using it to feed people).

      i would venture to say that this comparison is more apt than telushkin ultimately demonstrates, but it’s a great idea. i’ve been a vegetarian for a few years and my parents dislike it — when my parents chastise my brother for the occasion cigarette, i think their attitude about meat consumption is as idiotic as your response to a smoker denying health/environmental problems.

      • River_Tam

        > the ethics of eating meat is not telushkin’s focus in discussing the negativity of the meat industry.

        I didn’t say it was, and when I said ‘ethics of eating meat’ I was referring to participation in the Bacon Industrial Complex.

  • jamesdakrn

    Smoke weed errday

    • Goldie08

      Idiots like you are what’s keeping the fight against prohibition stuck in the 70’s