On Cigarettes, Vaping, and Nicotine
Good Monday morning everyone, and welcome back to the podcast. Pastor John, we have over fifty questions piling up and waiting patiently for us in the inbox, all on cigarette smoking, vaping, and nicotine addiction — topics not addressed on APJ to this point. Our questions include things like, Is cigarette smoking a sin? Is smoking a “deliberate” sin, a willful sin, like what we read about in Hebrews 10:26? Is it sinful for someone to smoke indoors, thereby endangering the health of non-smokers inside a home? And of course, we have several emails from parents watching their teens get addicted to nicotine by vapes. Should they be concerned? There’s a lot to cover. In our first venture into these intertwined themes, what thoughts come to your mind?
The United States Food and Drug Administration has been requiring health warnings on cigarette packages since 1969. As of May 2021, there are eleven approved warnings. Here are six of them. (I just got them off the FDA website.)
- Smoking causes head and neck cancer.
- Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in non-smokers.
- Smoking causes cataracts, which can lead to blindness.
- Smoking causes bladder cancer.
- Smoking causes type 2 diabetes.
- Smoking during pregnancy stunts fetal growth.
It’s not a debate anymore whether nicotine is a harmful drug and whether smoking causes numerous diseases. That includes nicotine in cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes (vaping), and chewing tobacco. Nicotine is harmful — whatever form you choose to put it in your mouth or in your lungs.
When Risk Is Wrong
The Bible is very clear that taking deadly risks is a noble and beautiful thing when you do it by entrusting your soul to Jesus and for the purpose of rescuing other people, especially people in eternal danger.
But the Bible has no praise for those who risk their lives or their health for private pleasure. The Bible calls this a deceitful desire (Ephesians 4:22). It’s a desire that promises one thing and then delivers another. It’s not rooted in or governed by a desire to show that Jesus is supremely desirable to us. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20,
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
“The Bible has no praise for those who risk their lives or their health for private pleasure.”
So smokers need to ask, Is my decision to damage my body, and probably others’, by smoking governed by a desire to make God look glorious with my body, or does it merely make me look self-indulgent? So yes, parents should be concerned, and yes, it is wrong to use a deadly drug to calm your nerves.
From the First Smoke to the Last
But let’s do this. Let’s name seven steps from the first cigarette to the grave and see whether they fall short of biblical righteousness. This might be something parents would walk through with their 13-year-old.
1. Many people, especially younger people, take the first step into smoking because it’s “cool.” When I say cool, I intend three elements in coolness:
- Coolness includes a feeling of liberating independence from authority. That authority might be a fuddy-duddy, fundamentalist, blowhard podcaster like me, or it might be parents, or it might be traditions that you’ve grown tired of.
- Coolness includes the feeling that you now have an image of attractiveness, for whatever reason.
- Coolness generally includes a sense of belonging to a group that you admire.
So step one into smoking is often motivated by a strong impulse to be cool in these three senses.
2. The desire to be a part of a cool group provides the necessary psychological power to deny, at the outset, that you are damaging yourself or others. Coolness empowers denial.
3. After the initial nausea or coughing or dizziness — if you get through that phase — there is the nicotine buzz, which feels, in the context of denial, like a justifiable reward. It feels good.
4. Now comes the pull of the buzz. As it becomes stronger, the desire passes from a chosen pleasure to the craving of a perceived need. This is sometimes called addiction. But I am usually hesitant to use that word because it creates the impression of helplessness, when we all know that if someone puts a blowtorch in front of your face, you will be able to put down the cigarette.
5. As one grows accustomed to the habit, there can easily grow a sense of indifference as to how it negatively affects others, whether at home or in public.
6. After enough time passes, then comes the negative health effect (or effects): lung disease, heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, eye problems. The body eventually signals, with the help of physical pain, the foolishness that we refuse to see in rational or moral argument.
7. Death may come earlier than it would have otherwise, or perhaps more painfully.
Bad Habits and the Bible
Now it doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see that each of these steps involves an inclination or inclinations and actions that are contrary to the Spirit of Christ.
When the desire to be cool overcomes the call to wisdom and humility and freedom and self-control, coolness has become an idol; it has become more precious than the way of Christ. This is the main root that parents should address as soon as their children can talk: What will be their treasure and their guide — Christ or the crowd?
“What will be our children’s treasure and their guide — Christ or the crowd?”
The second step — the one that denies the harmfulness of nicotine — is simply self-deception. The Bible calls us over and over again not to be deceived: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
The third step elevates the physical buzz above moral claims of wisdom and holiness. When Peter said, “I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11), he meant that there are soul pleasures and soul commitments that should govern the desires of the body and keep us back from self-harm.
In the fourth step, we’re falling into the bondage of a drug. Paul said, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be [enslaved] by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
In step six, as with most bad habits, they’re not just a problem for us, but they begin to be a problem for others. Our indifference to that is simply a lack of love: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
Finally, death is appointed for everyone, yes. Hastening it by means of self-pleasure, hastening it by means of selfish pleasure, is not submission to providence but the failure to value a precious gift.
Built into Your Kids
I would say to parents: from the earliest years, with prayer and a thoughtful use of the Bible, build into your children
- a freedom from the herd mentality of needing to be cool;
- a love of the truth;
- a passion for self-control and self-denial for the greater joys of righteousness;
- a deep commitment never to be enslaved by anything in this world;
- a strong concern for the interests of others, not just our own;
- a proper stewardship of the gift of health and life; and
- a fearlessness in the face of death, but a refusal to risk it for the sake of personal pleasure.