Not far from the North Dakota farm where I grew up was a barely-there town: a couple of grain elevators, a post office, a bar and a general store. The store was a brick box, containing creaky floors, decrepit and poorly stocked shelves, a few spotty fruits and vegetables, and a single dairy fridge. Nevertheless, I liked it, because it had a long counter of lollies in front of the cash register and Mother would let us pick out one dusty item to eat on the way home. Like many old stores of that era, the storekeeper’s office consisted of a balcony along the back of the premises, from which he could look down over his domain.
The storekeeper was Earl Smith, a grumpy old cadaver of a man, tall and gaunt, his face a semitransparent membrane of wrinkled parchment over his skull. He never stopped smoking. A Camel hung from his lips as he cut your bread or meat; and as he counted out the change and packed grocery bags, puffs of smoke would expel into your face.
My family strictly opposed smoking, not just because it was unhealthy and unhygienic, but as I interpreted what I heard my parents say, it was “a sin.”
I was four years old when I decided to reach out to Mr Smith about his vice. As my mother shopped, I mounted the steps to the balcony where he was sitting at his desk going through receipts, a glowing butt hanging as ever from a corner of his mouth. I helpfully, but pointedly, informed him that if he smoked cigarettes he was going to get sick and die. And when he did, I was quite sure he wouldn’t get to go to heaven, because I happened to know that Jesus hates cigarettes.
Mr Smith shouted down to my mother, “Hey, come and get your brat.” As my mother collected me he growled at her that what he smoked was none of anyone’s business but his, and she should shut her child up.
My mother was embarrassed, but when she told my father about it later, it sounded like she was a little proud, too.
The evolution of an addiction
Tobacco is mostly an American story. Columbus’s crewmates saw Native Americans inhaling the smoke created by a large-leafed plant, which seemed to leave them in a state of relaxation. Tobacco—Nicotiana tabacum—was only used ritually by most of the natives for religious or treaty ceremonies, and occasionally as an ingredient in herbal medicines. It remained for the European importers (Sir Walter Raleigh is generally given credit for popularising it in Europe) to turn tobacco into a recreational drug. The southeastern part of North America was ideal for its cultivation, and tobacco soon became a major American export, which required slaves to work the plantations.
Not everyone welcomed tobacco. King James I of England (sponsor of the King James Bible) wrote a treatise opposing it, calling it a “custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.” Still, it was defended by the physicians of the day, who declared it health-improving. Health was an argument used well into the twentieth century, when popular magazine advertisements featured cigarette recommendations by celebrity doctors.
Tobacco turned out to be a difficult foe to oppose. It provided jobs and brought prosperity to the American South. In the mid-nineteenth century, one-third of American federal taxes came from tobacco and other governments around the world taxed it similarly. It was still believed to be healthful by some and innocuous by most. Cigarettes protruded from the lips of beautiful and handsome celebrities in magazines, movies and television programs, and came to be regarded as a mark of sophistication.
Most important—though this was denied by tobacco marketers— nicotine, the active alkaloid in tobacco, is highly addictive. Smokers found it difficult to stop smoking, even if they wanted to.
Tobacco’s early opposition came from Christians. Church leaders argued that such an addictive habit was incompatible with a life dedicated to God. Seventh-day Adventist author Ellen White condemned it as early as 1848, and by 1861 her colleague J N Loughborough would write, “We do not take [into our church] any who use tobacco. . . . To take in those who are holding on to their sins and wrongs would be to encourage the things we are seeking to remedy.” Many religious leaders took up the crusade. The evangelist Billy Sunday became a particularly vociferous opponent of smoking.
Although doctors in many parts of the world saw an increase in disease in smokers, political pressure blocked serious research. A report by the United States surgeon general in 1964 tentatively (and against strong tobacco industry opposition) suggested a link between smoking and disease, but the theory wasn’t allowed to be confirmed for another 20 years. “Big Tobacco,” as its opponents called it, was ruthless in its promotion, even advertising to children using cartoon characters. The watershed moment for many consumers happened in 1994 when, before a congressional subcommittee in the United States House of Representatives, seven tobacco industry executives perjured themselves under oath, stating unequivocally what every tobacco user knew to be a lie: that tobacco was not addictive.
Faith and Tobacco
Despite decades of denial, there is now no doubt that tobacco destroys health. While we know that our bodies are mortal, the Bible nonetheless asks us to treat them as divine creations, made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” asked the apostle Paul. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). Inasmuch as each person’s “self” is housed in a biological brain that’s dependent on a healthy biological body, there seems to be no justification for doing anything that would make either mind or body less serviceable to God. “Why die before your time?” asks the preacher of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 7:17). Paul says that every action, even the mundane, should have a spiritual purpose: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
This, then, goes beyond mere good health, to become a spiritual issue. Can a Christian whose life is dedicated to God be enslaved to a consciousness-altering drug? Though tobacco was unknown to the Bible writers, they were quite familiar with another drug: alcohol. The Bible unequivocally condemns drunkenness: “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). And Paul lists drunkards along with thieves and swindlers among those unwelcome in God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:10).
Nicotine isn’t as immediately potent a drug as alcohol, but a helpful comparison between the two emerges in Ephesians 5:18 when Paul contrasts drunkenness with the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit. The implication is that there’s room for only one consciousness-altering devotion in one’s life, and that should be to God. Nicotine is as hurtful a competitor to God as is alcohol. If one can’t serve both God and “mammon” (as the King James Version describes materialism in Matthew 6:24), how much greater the dissonance between God and a costly, self-indulgent drug whose users find it nearly impossible to control? Most smokers readily admit that tobacco is in fact an enemy of the spiritual virtue of self-control (Galatians 5:23). And, as an aside, by this measure, even so-called e-cigarettes—though perhaps not as health-damaging as tobacco smoke but equally addictive—are just as troubling spiritually.
Fortunately, a nicotine addiction can be overcome. God “will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). With prayer, determination and (in recent years) medical intervention, many have achieved victory over this body- and soul-destroying addiction.
Why let a selfish habit stand between you and the full experience of knowing God?
Beating a Tobacco Addiction
- Commit to quitting, with a practical plan of action.
- If a slip-up occurs, recommit to the quitting process immediately.
- Moderate exercise is an effective way to deal with nicotine cravings.
- Quit using any substances that artificially stimulate and cause damage to the reward pathway. This includes alcohol, caffeine and illegal drugs.
- While you are cleansing your body from nicotine, drink two-and-a-half or even three litres of water per day.
- While it’s true that an accountability partner or a support group is of great help to anyone trying to break an addiction, it’s of more value to rely upon divine strength and power in these situations.