BOOK REVIEW: Smoking – The Artificial Passion, by David Krogh (1991)

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 10 February 2012

Smoking - The Artificial Passion, by David Krogh, 1991. Published by W. H. Freeman and Company

Unlike the vast majority of books about smoking, science writer David Krogh’s offering, Smoking: The Artificial Passion is no step-by-step quit guide.  He presents insights garnered from a huge body of scientific study and historical literature in order to explain why people ignore the health warnings and continue to smoke.  It is a fascinating, accessible book, and the psychological awareness it imparts may prove no less effective than the self-help approach to persuading someone to give up what a former president of the American Cancer Society, Charles Lemaistre, called “one of the most grievous examples of destructive behaviour in the history of mankind.”

The above quote concludes the foreword penned by a surgeon working in a large cancer hospital in the United States, where 30 per cent of his patients are there because they smoked.  Whilst Krogh is quick to point out that “smoking will kill more Americans than AIDS, heroin, crack cocaine, alcohol, car accidents, fire and murder combined,” his approach is strictly inquisitive and non-judgemental.  Despite the gravity of the subject, he often deploys a tastefully playful tone.  As he begins in the first chapter, Why do people do that?, “If millions of Americans started standing around exhaust pipes regularly to get a lung full of bad air, there would be widespread interest in the reasons for this behaviour.” Krogh cannot fathom why smoking has failed to generate the same level of interest: this book intends to ignite it.

Krogh awes readers with descriptions of the strength of nicotine’s tug.  Its addictive powers are perhaps never described more powerfully than in the excerpt of Robert Hughe’s experiences in the penal colony of early 19th century Australia:

“A group of prisoners were being led single file through the forest when, without provocation or warning, one of them crushed the skull of the prisoner in front of him with his axe. Later he explained that there was no tobacco to be had in the settlement; that he had been a smoker all his life and would rather die than go without it; so, in the torment of nicotine withdrawal, he had killed the man in order to be hanged himself.”

A beedi smoker in Gujurat, India. Beedis are popular in South Asia - it' s tobacco wrapped in a leaf.

Krogh also alerts readers to a generous bundle of little known nicotine facts, including the “nicotine darts” that were used to “bring down animals as large as elephants.” It is, as he says, “a powerful drug.”

However Krogh argues that understanding the smoking habit requires more than simply appreciating the burden of addiction.  In The Personality of Smoking, he states, “genes exercise some modest amount of influence over smoking” and lists certain traits that scientists have found far more prevalent among smokers than non-smokers.  Firstly, smokers “tend to rank higher than non-smokers on scales that measure what is called risk-taking and sensation seeking. As researcher Gene Smith puts it, ‘Smokers are more likely than non-smokers to think that what happens to them is due more to chance than to their own efforts and skills.’”

Smokers also “tend to rank lower in the personality category of deference” and “are less likely to lie [on personality inventory “lie tests”] tests…” Some argue this is because smokers are “more honest than non-smokers in the view of themselves that they present to others…”  Incidentally, along with being “inordinately extroverted,” smokers are also slimmer (even years after quitting) and “seem to have what can only be called a higher sex drive – or perhaps a lower sex inhibition – than do non-smokers.”

However Krogh is cautious about advocating a “genetically determined ‘type’” of smoker.  On the one hand, a person could “develop a rock-sure belief that permanent, total abstinence is the only kind of quitting that’s likely to be effective.”  Yet “such a belief could just as easily cut the other way and result in a person’s becoming a resigned smoker.” Ultimately, his position on genetic influences is dismissive, “Who cares?” he asks.  Every smoker still needs to quit.

Brick kiln workers taking a smoke break. Keraniganj, Bangladesh

Krogh identifies the intangible attraction to the act of smoking itself, which might have baffled non-smokers, were it not so elegantly elucidated.  As he writes, “… in the right circumstances, smoking is about as close a person can come to doing nothing while still doing something.  Though we may not like to admit it, this kind of minimalism can be very attractive.  It is one of the attractions of television.  Human beings may be incapable of doing absolutely nothing, but they don’t mind coming quite close, and smoking can fit into this narrow space quite well.  The lighting and stubbing of cigarette, the slight manipulation of it; the languorous exhalation of smoke towards the ceiling – these are the relaxing, almost comforting, acts that smoking can provide.  They’re often accompanied by the visual entertainment of clouds of smoke, and an energy surge in this state can lead to smoking’s superb artistic creation, the smoke ring.”

Though Krogh does not propose that writers are more inclined to smoke than anyone else, he offers a particular nugget of understanding: “… the difficulty of writing often propels the writer in the direction of other activities – of leaning back, of opening the window, of reviewing what’s already been written… As Isidor Chein points out, smoking is able to harness this kind of divergent activity…  Because [smoking] allows for movement without the expenditure of psychological energy, it provides, as Chein says, “an innocuous channel for wandering attention.”

Sheesha bar in Istanbul, Turkey

Krogh seeks to determine what distinguishes nicotine from virtually every other drug, and concludes that its status as “humanity’s all-time addictive drug of choice” lies in its utility.  After a preliminary summary of wide-ranging experiments, Krogh notes that nicotine, “can rescue people from several different dysphoric states.”  In contrast with other drugs, which are, in the main, used to “get high” as opposed to “getting normal,” Krogh notes that scientists have discovered nicotine “moved… people in the opposite direction from the environment in which they found themselves” – whether it be a state of boredom, happiness, calm or depression.  Thus Krogh suggests that “the number one public health enemy” remains almost universally legal because it “allows people to work, while other drugs attenuated their labouring abilities.” Studies have even found that nicotine improves performance in certain areas, such as maintaining concentration.  However as Krogh cautions, “This is a different assertion from saying that it boosts concentration.”

Krogh is no proponent of prohibition, a strategy he describes as “monstrously wasteful of lives and resources.  It amounts to an attempt to douse burning buildings when we need instead to attend to the causes of our fires.”  Rather, by documenting “the biology of addiction”, Krogh allows smokers and non-smokers to better understand what lies beneath such a self-destructive habit, and in turn, to defeat it once and for all.

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