Smokescreens: How Working Kills Smokers

For the vast majority of people in our society, the life circumstances leading to poor health are not adopted as a matter of personal choice, but are thrust upon people by the social and economic circumstances into which they are born.

— President of the American Public Health Association1

Nevertheless, according to the Surgeon General of the United States,

“About 87 percent of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking [and] smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in our nation.”2

The American Cancer Society agrees, “Cigarettes kill more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined.”3

Even the World Health Organization states that, “Tobacco is the single largest preventable cause of cancer in the world today.”4

Public officials warn that smoking can lower life expectancy by up to 15 years, and claim that nearly half a million Americans lose their lives every year because of smoking-related illnesses.5 At the same time, government subsidizes farmers to grow tobacco and also profits from the sale of cigarettes.

On each pack of cigarettes, governments receive 15 times more profit than the tobacco companies. Between 1999 and 2001, federal, state, and local governments collected more than $29 billion annually in tobacco revenue — more than $630 for every American adult smoker each year. The three levels of government pocket more tobacco revenue per minute ($55,872) than the average working family brings home in a year.6

Governments are addicted to tobacco revenue

Instead of spending their tobacco revenues on smoking-prevention programs, states are using the money to balance their budgets.

In 2006, the combined amount that all states allocated for smoking prevention was just $551 million. Compare this with the more than $21 billion obtained that year from the 1998 tobacco settlement and state tobacco taxes. In contrast, the tobacco industry spends more than $15 billion a year to market tobacco products – nearly 28 times the amount that states spend on smoking prevention.7

In 1997, executives from tobacco giants British American Tobacco, Imperial, Philip Morris, Rothman’s and RJ Reynolds made a secret pact to “strenuously resist with all means at their disposal … claims … that one cigarette is healthier or less harmful than another.”8 But they had little to fear from governments that are heavily invested in tobacco sales.

In 2005, Justice Department officials ordered lawyers prosecuting the tobacco industry to “throw the case down the toilet” and reduce their claim from $130 billion to $10 billion. This money was being claimed to fund stop-smoking programs.9

No matter how loudly they shout about the dangers of smoking, governments are addicted to tobacco revenue. And they need people to keep smoking because states have borrowed from future tobacco revenues to meet growing budget deficits.10,11

There is no question that smoking contributes to poor health. But to claim that smoking is the primary cause of preventable death and disease is one of the greatest scams in modern history.

Let’s say that workers who are injured on the job are more likely to bite their fingernails. Does that mean that workplace injuries are caused by nail-biting? Because two events are associated does not mean that one causes the other. There is no evidence that nail-biting causes injuries. It is more likely that the threat of being injured causes workers to bite their fingernails.

If smokers are more likely to get lung disease, does that mean that smoking causes lung disease? That’s what we’re supposed to think. When a miner who smokes gets lung cancer, his disease is blamed on his smoking, not on his job. If a child who lives near a toxic waste dump gets lung cancer and her parents smoke, her cancer will be attributed to second-hand smoke. For the most part, only if someone has never smoked, and has never lived or worked with smokers, will that person’s lung cancer be attributed to anything but smoking.

In reality, targeting smoking is a political smokescreen that hides the damage caused by occupational and environmental pollution. According to statistical analyst Theodor Sterling,

Smoking is highest among those individuals who are exposed to possible deleterious occupational factors. For instance, 71 percent of construction painters are current smokers while only 27 percent of teachers have that habit. In fact, when occupations are arranged by prevalence of smoking, 29 out of 40 occupations in which smoking is most prevalent are also those with high exposure to dusts and fumes, while in only 4 of the 40 occupations with the lowest prevalence of smoking are workers exposed to such hazards. There is a strong tendency for a higher proportion of individuals who do dirty work to smoke, compared to individuals who do clean work. Thus, in a statistical sense, the category smoker may be primarily an index for worker exposed to occupational hazards.12

Smokers and non-smokers belong to different classes

Sterling explains that, for the most part, smokers and non-smokers belong to different social classes. Factory workers are more likely to smoke, and smoke heavily, than managers and professionals.

We know that health improves as people move up the social ladder. People higher up the social ladder also tend to smoke less and have an easier time quitting than those lower down. When social class and occupation are held constant, the difference in cancer rates between smokers and non-smokers largely disappears.13,14

These facts do not prove that smoking is harmless, but that the damage caused by smoking cannot be separated from the damage caused by class oppression. People lower down the social ladder are exposed to more industrial pollution on the job, and they also live closer to hazardous waste dumps, polluting power plants, and industrial parks.15

The increase in respiratory diseases among children whose parents smoke is as much related to their family’s class position as it is to their smoking.

Children of smoking parents are more likely to live in industrial areas with more pollution and their parents are more likely to bring home toxic dust on their clothing, hair and skin. These families also tend to suffer more stress. The same is true for non-smoking spouses of smokers.16 For all these reasons, the categories ‘smoker’ and ‘smoker’s family’ are interchangeable with ‘most exposed to stress and pollution.’

Infants of mothers who smoke are often shorter and smaller than infants of mothers who don’t smoke. Since people tend to be shorter as one moves down the social scale, and since shorter people have shorter children, smoking mothers may have smaller infants because they live in more deprived conditions characterized by poor nutrition, less prenatal care, more health problems and more stress, as well as more smoking. When smoking is designated as the sole or primary cause of low-weight babies, systemic causes go unaddressed.
Rising industrial pollution

The dramatic rise in lung cancer after World War II is commonly attributed to more people smoking. However, as Barry Commoner notes in The Closing Circle, “most pollution problems made their first appearance, or became very much worse, in the years following World War II.”17

The end of the war saw the development of the atomic bomb, nuclear power, the arms race and an explosion in the production and widespread use of toxic chemicals.

As more women entered the workforce after the war, their rates of lung cancer rose. They also began to smoke more. Working women are more likely to encounter industrial pollution, and they are also torn between work and family responsibilities. Many women smoke to manage their stress, and stress reduces the body’s ability to fight disease.

A 1975 study found that lung cancer rates for Blacks rose dramatically after they migrated from the rural southern states to the urban northern states.18 Racist hiring practices cause Black workers to be exposed to more industrial dust and toxic chemicals on the job. Also because of racism, Black Americans are 80 percent more likely to live in highly polluted areas.15 This may explain why, on average, Black Americans smoke fewer cigarettes than white Americans do, yet suffer much higher rates of lung cancer.19

Among teenagers, working longer hours is linked to increased smoking. One study found that adolescents aged 13 to 16 years who worked between 11 and 20 hours per week were more than three times more likely to smoke compared to non-working teens. Teens working more than 21 hours per week smoked the most.20

What about the fact that people who smoke less suffer less disease? Sterling found that people who smoke less are generally higher up on the social scale, while those who smoke more tend to be lower.

What about the fact that smokers who manage to quit have lower disease rates than those who keep smoking? Sterling found that smokers who quit tend to have occupational profiles similar to those who never smoked.

In effect, those who don’t smoke, smoke less, or quit smoking have lower rates of “smoking-related diseases” because they belong to a higher social class that suffers less disease to begin with.

Sterling’s findings have been dismissed by anti-smoking groups because tobacco companies paid for some of his research. Who else would fund it? Industries don’t want to invest in making work safe, and their friends in government support them. Even the tobacco industry buried Sterling’s findings. Like every other capitalist enterprise, it could only lose by exposing the systemic causes of disease.

Political smokescreen

Blaming smoking for lung disease enables employers to deny compensation to smokers. In one example, a disabled miner with “a long period of exposure to underground mining” who was also “a very light smoker” was denied compensation on the basis that his lung disease was caused by his smoking and not by his work.21 Blaming the victim is more cost-effective than removing dust and fumes from the mines.

Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on Smoking and Health, the U.S. government has blamed smoking for every possible disease. According to the ACS,

Smoking is also a major cause of heart disease, bronchitis, emphysema, and stroke, and… is associated with increased risk of miscarriage, early delivery (prematurity), stillbirth, infant death, and is a cause of low birth weight in infants. Furthermore, the smoke from cigarettes has a harmful health effect on those around the smoke…Each year, a staggering 440,000 people die in the US from tobacco use. Nearly 1 of every 5 deaths is related to smoking…Because cigarette smoking and tobacco use is an acquired behavior, one that the individual chooses to do, smoking is the most preventable cause of premature death in our society.3

This being the official government position, there is little incentive or funding to investigate the relationship between social class, pollution and disease. Unions do educational work on the industrial causes of disease, but lack the resources to pay for original research.

Sterling found that air pollution is the primary cause of lung cancer in the United States. Lung cancer rates are higher in cities than in the countryside, and higher in larger cities than in smaller ones. The risk of getting lung cancer increases for people who migrate from areas with lower cancer rates to areas with higher cancer rates.22

Despite these facts, the National Cancer Institute, claims that environmental pollution accounts for only 7 percent of all cancers, while diet and smoking account for most of the rest – 65 percent.23

The American Cancer Society actively discounts people’s fears about pollution. According to the ACS web site, the 40 percent of the population who believe that

living in a polluted city is a greater risk for lung cancer than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day” are mistaken because “Being a smoker, or even being frequently exposed to second hand smoke is more dangerous than the level of air pollution encountered in US cities.”24

The ACS dismisses the overwhelming evidence connecting air pollution with a variety of diseases,25,26,27 on the basis that

“Most people tend to overestimate the risk caused by factors imposed on them by others, and to underestimate the seriousness of risks caused by their own behavior.”24

Consequently, the ACS devotes less than 0.1 percent of its budget to environmental and occupational causes of cancer.

The anti-smoking movement is dominated by moralism – the conviction that smoking is the result of self-indulgent, irresponsible, even sinful choices. Smokers are denied compensation, banned from public places, lectured, socially shunned, forced to pay “sin” taxes, suffer job discrimination, and are even denied medical care on the basis that they ‘chose’ to harm themselves.

For over 12 years, the sole lung cancer surgeon in a small Ontario mining town has refused to operate on smokers. According to Dr. Alberto de la Rocha,

“The only way to contain [lung cancer] is by making people responsible for their actions.”28

What is the responsibility of the mining corporations?

According to the Timmins’ city web site, 49 mines have operated in the area since 1909. Minerals extracted include: gold, silver, nickel, copper, cadmium, indium, talc, zinc, sulphur, stone, selenium, serpentine, silica, and the platinum group. Non-metal mining consists of granite, marble, hedmanite and magnetite. About 90 exploration companies operate in the city including multinationals such as Texasgulf Sulfur, Falconbridge, and Placer Dome.

Mining destroys worker’s lungs and mining processes contaminate the environment. But as long as smokers can be made responsible, the mine-owners are off the hook.

The workers’ drug

It’s not hard to explain why those who are most oppressed, most exploited and work in the dirtiest jobs smoke the most and have the most difficulty quitting.

Powerlessness promotes depression and smoking combats depression.29,30 Smoking triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that causes pleasant feelings. The effect of smoking on the brain is similar to the effect of antidepressant medications.31

Adolescents with Attention Deficit Disorder are twice as likely to smoke and have a harder time quitting than adolescents without ADD. Researchers investigating this phenomenon found that nicotine worked as well as the drug Ritalin to calm the symptoms of ADD.32

Smoking soothes the pain of lives trapped in hopeless drudgery. So it’s not surprising that miners are some of the heaviest smokers. No one wants to spend their days working underground in a dark, dirty, dangerous, noisy, fume-filled environment.

Smoking is the drug of choice for the working class. Smoking calms the feelings of powerlessness generated by the unsolvable conflict between what one wants and needs and what life delivers under capitalism. Those with the worst lives have the biggest conflict, and so they smoke the most. Smoking soothes the pain of alienation, which Engels so vividly describes,

Where voluntary, productive activity is the highest enjoyment known to humanity, so is compulsory toil the most cruel degrading punishment. Nothing is more terrible than being constrained to do some one thing every day from morning until night against one’s will. And the more a man the worker feels himself to be, the most hateful must his work be to him, because he feels the constraint, the aimlessness of it for himself. Why does he work? For love of work? From a natural impulse? Not at all! He works for money, for a thing that has nothing whatsoever to do with the work itself; and he works so long, moreover, and in such unbroken monotony, that this alone must make his work a torture in the first weeks if he has the least human feeling left.33

The conflict between human need and corporate greed drives the smoking habit. Until this conflict is resolved, workers will smoke to distract themselves from their powerlessness and calm their rage.


See also Inequality: The Root Source of Sickness

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Susan Rosenthal is a socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Power and Powerlessness (2006). She recently launched ReMarx Publishing. She can be reached through her web site or by email: Read other articles by Susan.