Poisons and Pesayim

There was a time when smoking was regarded as a harmless pastime — even a healthy one. (“More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” boasted one 1940s ad.) Some people today still seem to regard inhaling burning tobacco fumes as perhaps unhealthy but not potentially suicidal. They are wrong.

No scientist or doctor in the world today denies that smoking is a major risk factor for an assortment of ailments, including heart disease and lung cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by illegal substances and alcohol abuse, vehicular injuries, people taking their own lives, and murders — combined.

“Smoking,” the CDC notes, “harms nearly every organ of the body” and contributes not only to heart ailments and a broad host of cancers, but to strokes and functional problems as well.

People who are addicted to smoking can’t be blamed for their addiction, although if they are able to make the great effort to quit they will limit the damage they are doing to their bodies. But young people who make a decision to undertake the “hobby” of smoking are actively choosing to harm themselves no less — and perhaps more — than were they to make spoiled food or poisons a part of their regular diets.

No one today can claim to be unaware that smoking takes a medically measureable toll on those who indulge in it, and that the habit causes people to live shorter lives than they would have had they not undertaken the practice. The medical consensus has no dissenters.

Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, it is well known, stopped short of halachically forbidding smoking. His teshuvah on the matter, though, is several decades old, dating to a time when the dangers of tobacco were suspected but their full gamut and seriousness not yet fully appreciated.

What is more, Rav Moshe’s halachic rationale for not forbidding smoking outright was that, when it comes to common but questionably dangerous behavior, shomer pesayim Hashem — Hashem protects fools (Tehillim 116:6). Even then, Rav Moshe exhorted Jews to not begin to smoke due to the “chashash sakanah,” the “possibility of danger,” a possibility that has now been firmly upgraded.

Hagaon Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, prohibited smoking. Hagaonim Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Harav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, zecher tzaddikim livrachah, signed a kol koreh against smoking, as did, yibadlu l’chaim tovim, Hagaonim, shlita, Harav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Harav Nissim Karelitz and Harav Shmuel Auerbach.

These days, a new, non-tobacco-containing product has been introduced to the market as a safe alternative to cigarettes. “Electronic cigarettes,” or “e-cigarettes,” have grown in popularity over recent years, and have been embraced by many in our community as well. Although the new products do not produce tar and other chemicals that tobacco products contain, because e-cigarettes are not regulated by the FDA or other agencies, and because there is little available research on their effects, it is not known if they are harmful. But the vapor the product produces does contain nicotine, which is addictive, associated with cardiovascular disease and affects brain development in children and teens. The devices’ vapors have also been found to contain chemicals that are not found in tobacco smoke but which may be toxic.

For people addicted to cigarettes, the electronic versions may represent a means of weaning themselves off the habit. The degree, if any, to which the devices have been successfully used for that purpose has still not been researched. But there is no upside at all to young non-smokers using e-cigarettes and thereby actively courting nicotine addiction and perhaps worse.

And one thing is certain. When it comes to cigarettes themselves, young bnei Torah with their lives ahead of them must face the fact that, if they smoke, they are ignoring the exhortations of contemporary Gedolim. By inhaling carbon particulates, tar, carbon monoxide, nicotine, formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic and DDT, they are not only, in the passuk’s word, fools, but are increasing the likelihood of, chalilah, prematurely widowing their wives and orphaning their children. A harsh thought, but, unfortunately, a necessary one.

For those who are still using old fashioned cigarettes, there is another aspect to consider. In addition to second-hand smoke being downright dangerous to the lives of innocent bystanders and passersby, many individuals are highly allergic to cigarette smoke. Without even realizing it, the fellow puffing away just caused a fellow Jew in the other end of the hallway, or walking a few feet ahead of him on the sidewalk, to get a splitting headache, and suffer from dizziness and nausea.

There is no shortage of reasons to quit smoking, and for those fortunate never to begin, not to take the first puff. All it takes is some common sense and firm resolve.